Nurses with the Capital District Health Authority are poised to go on strike for 30 hours beginning Thursday morning as the provincial government moves to shut it down with essential services legislation as early as Friday.
Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said she expects the strike to begin at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
"When the legislation passes, we will go back to work," she said Wednesday after a protest rally at the legislature.
The union represents 2,400 nurses who are demanding higher staffing levels to ensure patient safety. The Capital District Health Authority has said the demand for nurse-to-patient ratios won't work because it is too inflexible and there is no evidence it would improve safety.
Surgeries postponed between March 31 and April 3:
Capital District Health Authority: 208
South West Health Authority: None
South Shore Health Authority: None
Annapolis Valley Health Authority: 26
Cumberland Health Authority: 2
Colchester East Hants Health Authority: 6
Pictou County Health Authority: 11
Guysborough Antigonish Strait Health Authority: 8
Cape Breton Health Authority: Unknown
Chris Power, the president and CEO of Capital Health, said Thursday's planned strike will put "significant" pressure on patients and health care across the province.
"Every day that we don't have our nurses here is a concern for us, every hour that we don't have our nurses here," she told a news conference.
"Our patients and the provincial health care system will again be at risk."
The union and the health authority have agreed to maintain full staffing levels for emergency rooms and units offering dialysis, cancer care and intensive care. But Power said many other services won't have enough nurses to provide proper emergency care.
"As in yesterday's illegal strike, we will use every effort to provide the best care we can with the resources we have," Power said.
"This is a difficult time for everybody, not just for nurses who are poised to strike tomorrow, but all staff. Tensions are high."
Power warned that 14 of 26 neurosurgery beds — most of them full — will have to be closed. She said 100 beds the health authority had hoped to close in preparation for the strike will remain open because there's no space for the patients elsewhere in the hospital.
"We're going to have more beds, more patients in those beds, than we have staffing for at the present time," said Dr. Ward Patrick, the Capital District Health Authority's chief of critical care.
"If you're asking me, 'Is it possible that someone can be hurt?' The answer to that would be yes."
The Stephen McNeil government introduced the Essential Health and Community Services Act earlier this week to stall any strike. But Bill 37 won't become law before Friday after the New Democrats refused to fast-track the legislation Tuesday night.
More than 2,400 registered nurses at Capital Health will be in a legal strike position beginning Thursday at 12:01 a.m. Some staged an illegal walkout Tuesday, but were ordered back to work by the Nova Scotia Labour Board. The district said 140 people did not report for work.
Jessome said up to 60 per cent of nurses in Local 97 will be working on Thursday, adding nurses are still willing to sit down to renewed contract negotiations in an effort to avoid a strike.
"No matter what happens on Friday, or tomorrow morning, we still have to fix what's going on in that workplace," Jessome said.
On Wednesday, hospitals in the city handled only emergency cases and outpatient surgery. About two dozen more serious procedures were cancelled, even though the facilities were fully staffed.
The Capital District Health Authority says by the end of Thursday, it will have postponed 208 surgeries — 188 at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre and 88 at Dartmouth General.
Some patients have already been transferred to other health districts in the province, which has led to dozens of other surgeries being postponed.
New Democrats stall bill until Friday
On Tuesday night, the Liberal government tried to end the examination of Bill 37 before the law amendments committee, which would have cut off testimony by dozens of nurses who wanted to speak about the proposed legislation.
Liberal House leader Michel Samson said the government is trying to stop the strike before it starts.
"(The NDP) is working and doing everything possible to cause a strike in health care," he said.
But New Democrat House leader Frank Corbett said the Liberals could have introduced the legislation earlier if they had wished.
"Don’t tell me that we’re holding up the bill," he said.
Premier Stephen McNeil has said the new law is needed because there have been three labour disruptions in the health-care sector within seven months.
"There is no place in the country where staffing ratios are in any collective bargaining unit. But yet, that's what they're demanding here," McNeil said Wednesday outside the legislature. "There's no place in the country that we don't have essential services legislation and yet, they're opposing it here."
Some nurses staged an illegal walkout Tuesday. They are upset at the introduction of the essential services legislation, which would forbid a strike until there is agreement between the employer and workers on what constitutes essential services.
By afternoon the Nova Scotia Labour Board had issued a cease and desist order, telling nurses they must return to work.
The illegal strike and the threatened walkout on Thursday is having repercussions for patients across the province. Health authorities outside of the Halifax region have cut services to their own patients as they anticipate taking patients from Capital Health.