'More than a crisis': Ottawa hospitals face severe staffing shortages

Hundreds of staff are off work from Ottawa hospitals because they've tested positive for COVID-19, while nursing unions in the province want the government to do more to help solve the staffing shortage.

Nursing associations call on Premier Doug Ford to intervene, repeal Bill 124

A nurse wearing personal protective equipment prepares to treat a patient in the emergency department at Scarborough General Hospital last April. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Hospitals in Ottawa are scrambling to meet staffing needs as hundreds of nurses in the city test positive for COVID-19, while nursing unions in Ontario plead with the provincial government to take action to solve the staffing crisis. 

Ottawa nurse Rachel Muir, who also heads the local bargaining unit of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), says this is "worse than a crisis."

"We're breaking," she said. "My nurses are breaking, they don't have any reserves anymore."

She told CBC Radio's All in a Day that while there's been a shortage of nurses for almost two decades, the pandemic is almost two years old and it has exacerbated the problem. Nurses are facing cancelled vacations, being asked to work overtime on their days off, and a lack of equipment.

"The acuity of patients is getting higher," Muir said.

In Ottawa, there are hundreds of staff off work due to COVID-19 infections or exposure.

There are 100 people off the job at The Ottawa Hospital because they have tested positive for the virus and more than 80 more at the Queensway Carleton Hospital (QCH). 

The Montfort Hospital reports about 90 staff in isolation because of COVID-19. 

Even staff who test negative after exposure to COVID take extra precautions, such as "work self-isolation," explained Rebecca Abelson, spokesperson for The Ottawa Hospital.

Those measures include daily rapid antigen testing, wearing PPE at all times, taking breaks alone, and limiting their work to one area. 

"It has been a tough holiday season," QCH spokesperson Kelly Spence wrote in an email.

"Extra shifts, extra patients and extra precautions. The team has been absolutely amazing in responding to the challenge."

That hospital announced last week it was pulling back on some services due to a staffing shortage, something the province has requested.

"Please know, this isn't a decision that was made lightly," Kerry Cook, vice-president of patient care, said at the time.

Martin Sauvé from the Montfort wrote the situation is "fragile" and staff members are feeling the strain.

But Bernie Robinson, the regional vice-president for ONA in eastern Ontario, said the situation in Ottawa was already of concern. 

She said there are 4,300 registered nurses at The Ottawa Hospital but the network is short 200 staff just to meet regular levels of need. The situation has only worsened.

"They're walking into work short-staffed, their patient ratios are very high, looking after 10 and more patients at a time, which on a lot of units, that is an extravagant number," Robinson said. 

Nursing associations want to see change from the province

On Monday, the Ontario government announced the province would move back to a modified "Step Two" of the reopening plan. 

Among the slate of changes: a delayed return to in-person learning and closing dining rooms and gyms, and the directive for hospitals to pause non-urgent and non-emergent surgeries "in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity."

Muir said she doesn't think this will help because Ottawa hospitals don't even have the staff to perform the procedures that are being postponed. 

"These procedures don't go away just because you've cancelled them," she said. "It just creates a problem for tomorrow.

"We just don't have enough nurses, I don't know how else I can say it."

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, says staff retention is key to ending nursing shortages because without mentors, new nurses won't stay either. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), said she's been calling for more significant restrictions since early December, warnings that went unheeded by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

"We are now seeing the consequences," she said, adding this week's restrictions are "too little too late."

"The premier again ignored it, and now the situation is unsustainable," said Grinspun, who wrote an open letter to the Ford stating "the cracks in our health system are clear for all to see."

"Throughout the entire course of this pandemic, you have continually shown disrespect for nurses and the nursing profession, turning a pre-pandemic nursing shortage into a full-blown nursing crisis," she wrote in the letter. 

Calls to repeal Bill 124

Grinspun wants the Ontario government to impose even tighter restrictions, moving back to Step One, and to repeal Bill 124, which caps annual salary increases for nurses. Muir and Robinson also want to see the province do away with Bill 124. 

"It devalues us, it disrespects us, so that needs to be the first step," said Muir. 

Robinson said Ford has yet to sit down with her union's new president to discuss the staffing shortage. 

"We're in a severe crisis," she said, adding the province is more than 22,000 registered nurses short, just to catch up to the correct nurse-to-patient ratio. 

"We're so severely restricted with our nursing numbers."

CUPE, OCHU also sound the alarm

Hospitals aren't just short on nurses. 

Muir said while her organization represents nurses, "the impact is just as great for the other frontline workers as well."

"It's the same problem for all of us," she said.

The province's CUPE leaders also held a news conference Thursday asking for Bill 124 to be repealed, increase wages and staffing in health care.

Premier announces more hospital beds, receives criticism 

On Tuesday, Ford tweeted he'll add more hospital beds to meet demand, along with a series of photos that have since been widely circulated online. 

In a couple of the photos, the premier is seen standing next to an empty hospital bed, with no nurses or hospital staff in the room, which many have called illustrative of the problem. 

"He can open all the beds he wants, don't you think you need a couple nurses to look after the patient, or is it self-serve? Maybe that's what the premier thinks, that it's drive-through nursing, but that doesn't exist," Grinspun said.

"It's a fantasy land. ... He's so out of touch."

She said her message to Ontarians who want to support nurses is to get vaccinated, get their boosters, work from home if possible, limit social contacts, and let the premier know "enough is enough."

With files from All in a Day and Ottawa Morning