Between respiratory virus season and a critical nursing shortage, it’s the perfect storm for health care in the province, the Manitoba Nurses Union president says.
Darlene Jackson told Global Winnipeg the holidays were slammed for nurses, with a record 77 patients waiting to be triaged in the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) emergency department on a single day.
That’s on top of the intensive care units at HSC and the Children’s Hospital being overwhelmed with patients in need of care.
“I think what’s happening right now is we’re going through a really tough time with our respiratory illnesses, but we’re also going through a really tough time in health care with critical nursing shortages,” Jackson said.
“What happens when those nurses get an influx of patients or have a patient load heavier … they manage. They have no choice. There is no one to back them up, so they manage.
“They work harder, they go without breaks, they do overtime — they’re mandated to stay — and they’re exhausted at the end of it.”
Jackson said it’s never been this bad for her members, but acknowledged that the new NDP government is willing to listen to front-line workers about potential solutions, giving some hope and optimism that relief will eventually come.
“One thing they’ve talked about is adding more seats in the nursing program, which is great, but that’s a long-term goal,” she said. “That’s four to five years away, getting those additional nurses into the system.
“In the meantime, I think we really have to focus on retention — we have to retain every nurse we possibly can in the system, especially those experienced nurses … but I also think we have to look to other provinces and be really competitive.”
Manitoba health minister on nursing shortage
Health Minister Uzoma Asagwara says fixing the health-care system as it existed under Heather Stefanson’s previous government — a focus of last fall’s election campaign — remains the province’s top priority,
“Health care wasn’t treated the way that it should be,” Asagwara said. “Health-care workers weren’t treated with the care they deserve. Our health-care system wasn’t invested in a way that saw outcomes improve for Manitobans.
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“Our focus is on taking a different approach and really prioritizing Manitobans having the best health care possible, but also making sure they’re having the best health-care outcomes.”
Asagwara said they’re focused on resetting the province’s relationship with existing workers, as well as recruiting new ones. When the government was sworn in last year, one of their first steps was to send an open letter to health-care workers, asking what changes they’d like to see.
A ‘listening tour’ campaign also began at Winnipeg’s Grace Hospital before the holidays.
“Sending that open letter was the opportunity for us to start to reset the relationship with health-care workers,” Asagwara said. “It was our chance to say, ‘You’ve got a government that respects you, that wants to work with you and support you, and wants to make sure that Manitobans have access to the care that you provide.’”
Post-holiday virus season in full effect, epidemiologist says
Part of the current stress on emergency rooms, the influx of respiratory patients, is something a local epidemiologist says is typically seen within a few weeks of the holidays.
“Right now we’re at over 2,000 visits a week to our emergency departments and urgent care facilities just for respiratory-type viruses,” Cynthia Carr of EPI Research told Global Winnipeg.
“Leaving aside everything else that can go in life, we’re looking at thousands of visits a month right now just due to respiratory illnesses — that can be RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), that can be influenza, COVID-19, colds … even a cold can make people very sick.
“It can be a week, two weeks after this holiday season, we might see more people presenting with influenza, COVID, etc.”
Carr said an increase in the number of patients with these types of symptoms can wreak havoc on hospitals, and cause delays among other patients waiting for surgical or other procedures, as hospital staff work to prevent any further viral transmission.
“You can’t control what other people are doing, and that’s important for us to understand. It’s not about blame or about fault, but when we push our health-care system past the breaking point, that can really impact people that have been waiting for a long time for a diagnostic or surgical procedures,” Carr said.
“It’s really important for us to really be careful, look after ourselves, and by looking after ourselves, we’re looking after our neighbours as well.”
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