Nfld. & Labrador

With N.L. nurses pledged to help Ontario, their union points to dire shortages at home

The union representing registered nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador says they'll respond to Ontario's crisis, but that doesn't negate the need to deal with persistent staffing shortages at home.
Yvette Coffey, the president of the provincial Registered Nurses' Union, says no nurses from Labrador will head to Ontario, as that region is already dealing with severe understaffing. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

As the pandemic pushes health-care workers in Ontario to the brink of exhaustion, nurses from Newfoundland and Labrador are mobilizing to help, although their union says persistent staffing shortages across their own province cannot be ignored amid the crisis.

Talks are happening daily between the provincial government and the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador to fulfil Premier Andrew Furey's promise to send help to Ontario, according to union president Yvette Coffey.

On Tuesday, Newfoundland and Labrador logged two new cases, while Ontario logged 3,469. Ontario's front-line workers are exhausted, she said, battling a third wave of the virus fuelled by contagious variants, and forcing them to the point of field hospitals and triaging ventilator use.

"They're overflowing, at capacity. Our hearts go out to them, and as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, our spirit of giving is always there," she said.

"However, we still have to balance that out with the needs of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the people on the front line in our health-care system."

Exactly who will go — and when — remains up in the air, she said, with potentially 30 nurses to be chosen from a pool of volunteers in the Western, Central and Eastern Health regions. A key deciding factor will be making sure that freeing up those nurses doesn't affect the patients, staff or operations they are temporarily leaving behind. 

"You can put your hand up to go, but if it affects services here, you know, it's not going to happen," Coffey told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday.

Furey emphasized that point on Wednesday afternoon during the COVID-19 media briefing.

"We are looking at all the staffing availability, but we've been assured this won't disrupt any surgeries or any clinical services at this point," he said.

This Toronto field hospital at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, seen here under construction, is getting ready to accept its first patients this week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Labrador nurse levels at 'all-time low'

However many nurses end up heading to Ontario, there won't be any travelling from Labrador-Grenfell Health's coverage area.

Nurse staffing levels there are "at an all-time low," Coffey said, with the union currently compiling the exact number of vacancies.

"They're crying for help," she said, with coastal clinics staffed with full-timers at about half of what they need at the best of times.

"We have a dire situation in Labrador as a whole," she said, with Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador City, and St. Anthony also having challenges with nurses' staffing. She's also heard of a lack of nurses causing issues in Deer Lake and Gander, and nurses across the province putting in 24-hour shifts or working up to 17 days in a row.

In the face of such shortages, the decision to send staff to Ontario is being criticized by some Labradorians.

Erica Caldwell of Charlottetown, on Labrador's south coast, said her grandfather was recently sent home from the local clinic, deemed ineligible for a medevac despite being in pain. He took matters into his own hands and managed to get on a flight to St. Anthony, she said, undergoing emergency surgery shortly after arriving.

"My grandfather ended up in septic shock, on life support, and eventually sent to St. John's. And when he was ready to recover back in St. Anthony, they had to wait for a bed to open up because of their staffing shortages," said Caldwell, who is currently studying pharmacy at Memorial University.

Caldwell's grandfather's experience isn't unique — another family in Port Hope Simpson has spoken out about their recent medevac crisis — and she said such instances show a continued lack of attention on Labrador medical issues.

"The fact that Furey has agreed to send staff to Ontario, and can't even fully staff his hospitals and clinics in the province … it's not right. It's unbelievable, because this is a long-term problem."

N95 masks, like the one seen here, must be fitted to the user, a process Coffey says should be done before nurses head to Ontario. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Complicated logistics

The nurses' union has been trying to sit down with the provincial government to address Labrador's issues and the provincewide shortages, Coffey said. In the meantime, there are a lot of logistics to sort out the short-term supply of nurses to Ontario.

The nurses must be licensed to practise in Ontario, and talks between the two provinces' licensing bodies are underway, but "that's not a one day thing," Coffey said.

Workers' compensation and overall pay need to be addressed, and personal protective equipment arranged. Covering the cost of sending the health-care workers will be up to the federal or Ontario governments, she said.

Health Minister John Haggie said Wednesday only workers who have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine will be eligible to go to Ontario.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show, Newfoundland Morning and On The Go

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