A handful of programs to ease Manitoba’s nurse and health care aide shortages have barely made a dent.
"Everybody is just pissed off," said a retired nurse, who wants to remain anonymous.
"There’s not enough nurses in Manitoba," she said. "They’ve been in crisis for a long time."
Recent data from the Manitoba Nurses Union show Winnipeg is short nearly 1,300 registered nurses, and the situation is more dire in the northern region, where almost one out of every two nursing positions remains vacant.
Last year, the province issued a call for retired or out-of-province nurses to receive expedited temporary registration and join the pandemic workforce. The province has also supported Red River College in developing rapid micro-credential programs to train uncertified health-care support workers.
The College of Registered Nurses said 63 nurses — who were retired, on leave, in different careers or from out of province — registered as temporary pandemic nurses from April 1 to Dec 31, 2020. So far this year, that number has nearly doubled, to 123.
While those additional nurses have helped ease the shortage, the retired ICU nurse noted not enough was done to encourage retired nurses to return to the job. She was never contacted or asked to return to work, and knows many would not take the opportunity, if offered.
"Nurses are retired for a reason," she said. "I know several people who retired because of the pandemic. They just couldn’t do it anymore."
Shelly Glover, a former member of Parliament and police officer, took the five-day micro-credential program at Red River College in Steinbach and worked in a southern Manitoba care home for more than four months.
During that time, Glover said staff was at their wits’ end as they scrambled to manage residents’ basic needs while working double-shifts to make up for a severe staff shortage.
"I thought we were supposed to be extra help and we were barely making up for the shortages," Glover said.
"I’ve never seen anything like it. (Staff) have absolutely no time at all to do anything that is fun or that is helpful to the emotional needs of the residents."
Glover called the experience "heart-breaking," noting she stayed late some days to hold residents’ hands and provide emotional support.
Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions president Linda Silas said the fast-tracked programs are a temporary and marginal solution to a nationwide problem.
"It’s like a big Band-Aid: you fix a hole quite quickly," Silas said. "You can do that with personal care workers, you cannot do fast-tracked (nursing) programs as quickly."
Assiniboine Community College’s practical nursing program, for example, recently increased its class size by 10 spots to 35 — but the program only runs every two years.
Though shortages are across the country, Silas said the situation in northern Manitoba is likely "the worst across the country," and Manitoba’s lack of critical care nurses is dire.
Silas said health-care shortages started after Canada stopped tracking and analyzing staffing needs in 2008. Without analysis, she said, there has been little policy and funding to support hiring and retention of staff, even as the number of registered nurses eligible for retirement increases.
More nurses are looking to change careers or retire as soon as the pandemic winds down, she said.
A recent study from the federation, Silas noted, said "the anxiety, major depression and PTSD of nurses is double what the general population is," prompting many to leave the profession.
The cycle of shortages will only end through policy changes and increased funding, though Silas said those measures are unlikely to come before the pandemic ends.
"Nurses tell us what they want to be satisfied in their job is to be able to do their job well," she said, noting government support would be needed to reach that goal.
A spokesperson for the province said approximately 300 uncertified health-care aides completed Red River’s micro-credential course and are employed in the Winnipeg, Interlake-Eastern and Southern Health regions. Prairie Mountain and Northern health regions operate their own program largely modelled on the Red River program, the province said.
An additional 3,925 people have been hired into the COVID-19 casual pool since last spring to work in a variety of roles, including vaccination and testing.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.