'Desperate for help' as nursing vacancies soar in northern Manitoba, union says in urgent plea

Long-standing and significant nursing shortages in the province's north are becoming even more dire during the COVID-19 pandemic, some residents say.

Nearly 80% of nursing positions in Lynn Lake, over 50% at Gillam hospital vacant

The Northern Health Region has a nursing vacancy rate of more than 25 per cent. In some hospitals like Gillam and Lynn Lake, the vacancy rates are much higher. (Claude Vickery/CBC)

Long-standing and significant nursing shortages in northern Manitoba are becoming even more dire during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in some communities say — and the union that represents Manitoba nurses has issued an urgent plea for help.

Last week, the Manitoba Nurses Union put out a message on social media it called an "S.O.S. from the north."

"We are drowning," a tweet posted on Friday said.

"We're desperate for help in Lynn Lake, Gilliam & Snow Lake.... People are left in a vulnerable situation with NO access to health care services if nurses aren't able to cover these shifts."

There were 109 open positions for nurses in the Northern Health Region as of Nov. 1, according to the health authority — a vacancy rate of 25.2 per cent.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reported a 17.3 per cent vacancy rate for nurses as of October, while the rate in the Southern Health Region was 21.2 per cent as of the end of September, according to documents obtained by the Opposition NDP.

Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Morris Beardy echoes concerns the union has raised about patient care and the mental health of nurses. People from his community, about 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, use the nearby hospital in Gillam.

As of Nov. 1, seven of 13 registered nurse positions at that hospital were unfilled, according to data provided by the Northern Health Region — a vacancy rate of 54 per cent.

"Not only is the Gillam hospital experiencing significant staff shortages for many months, but vacancies and burnout are obviously an issue at this time also," Beardy told CBC News.

Nurses are overworked as they have to take on additional responsibilities on top of their nursing duties, he said.

"It should be the cleaning staff doing the cleaning stuff, the nurses do the nursing, the cooks doing the cooking. But, you know, it seems like once you get in there, they make you do other duties beyond what you're supposed to be doing."

Drawing nurses to Lynn Lake a challenge: officials

In northwestern Manitoba, the town of Lynn Lake and the surrounding communities are facing similar problems.

Seven of nine nursing positions at the Lynn Lake hospital aren't filled, the health region said — a 78 per cent vacancy rate.

The mayor and town council worry there aren't enough incentives for nurses to work in Lynn Lake, especially because there are nursing jobs available all over the province.

"COVID really put a burden on all these hospitals ... and now even the south is looking at needing agency nurses to fill in their gaps," said Jim Shortt, the mayor of the town of roughly 600 people.

"So why would our agency nurses now want to come up north when they could stay down south and have the same job?"

Although everyone who works in the north gets a bonus, Lynn Lake Coun. Vicki Phillips believes the incentive isn't doled out equitably.

"They get the same bonus, whether they work in Flin Flon, The Pas, Thompson or Lynn Lake. The amount of services and things that they have in Thompson and Flin Flon are completely different than what the get in Lynn Lake, so why would a nurse choose to come here?" she said.

Shortt says the provincial government's recent announcement of 20 new nurses who will be trained in the north is not enough, considering there are 109 vacancies.

"I'm sorry, but Thompson's going to eat that up in no time," he said. "We need more."

Thompson currently has more than 50 vacant nursing positions, according to the Northern Health Region — a 49 per cent vacancy rate.

When asked how the province would address nursing vacancies in the north, a spokesperson for Manitoba Health said the government has added 400 new nursing education seats and is supporting more than 1,800 internationally educated nurses to begin practising in Manitoba.

The province has also added new nursing positions to intensive care units in Brandon and Winnipeg, and helped allow third- and fourth-year nursing students to practise within surgical, medicine and mental health units, the spokesperson said.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson