Who is in charge of the vaccine rollout in Manitoba — that’s a question many nurses in the province are asking, including in the Prairie Mountain Health (PMH) region.
The region put out an internal call for COVID vaccine program support intake for PMH employees only, about a month ago.
"As more COVID-19 vaccine is delivered in the coming weeks, teams of people will be needed throughout our region to make this historic immunization campaign a success," PHM states.
One nurse, who spoke with The Brandon Sun on condition of anonymity, said, initially, the process was simple. The application is through the workplace intranet. The application asks all the basic questions, how the applicant is willing to help, employee number and EFT (equivalency to full-time).
The nurse is a casual nurse and their friends are also casual and part-time, because they are retired.
"We all applied and nobody has heard anything from Prairie Mountain Health," they said.
Another nurse, in a PMH community, was offered the same job by two different people for different wages.
"She applied to be an immunizer. When you’re a nurse, there’s a pay scale, right? Depending on your experience. She’s a very experienced nurse, but she’s at the top of her pay scale, but she got offered a lower pay, and then a higher pay, but by two different people. And, then, she was offered training. Well, she’s already a trained nurse. She doesn’t need training to immunize," said the anonymous nurse.
The Sun asked PMH to explain the system, including who is in charge of hiring. The spokesperson asked that question be turned over to provincial communications.
"The recruitment team for immunization clinics has been led by the province with the support of Shared Health and regional health authorities. We’ve already got more than 1,700 people in place to do this work, which includes 1,100 new hires," said the provincial spokesperson.
"As more vaccine supply arrives, we’re going to be in a good place to have additional staff or independent contractors hired, trained and ready to provide vaccines, when and where they are needed."
As reported in the Winnipeg Free Press, earlier this week, the province hired a private Canadian company, the David Aplin Group, to assist it in recruiting staff for its vaccination clinics. A spokeswoman said the contract was tendered in December and signed this month.
But the spokesperson who replied to the Sun’s questions stated the David Alpin Group has been brought on board to support the recruitment of people from outside the health system, such as dentists, veterinarians, as well as individuals who don’t currently hold an EFT position within Shared Health.
"Shared Health continues to support the application process for those who hold an EFT within the organization and will remain the employer of record for all those hired to support this initiative," stated the spokesperson.
In times of war — and many politicians and others refer to this time in history as the war against COVID-19 — nurses are on the frontlines. They do it all. Yet, the province has not turned to its nurses, who are experts at leading and setting up vaccination clinics.
And, further, they are expected to accept the chaos created by the provincial government’s inability to put together a timely and transparent plan.
Darlene Jackson is president of the 12,000 member Manitoba Nurses Union, and a nurse for 40 years in the province.
Jackson said part of the problem is the provincial government hasn’t completed its transformation of health care in Manitoba. What was known as Manitoba Health became regionalized in the 90s, moving away from a centralized health authority. Shared Health came to be as a procurement entity, so the regions could get better prices on equipment and supplies.
She said it looks like the province is headed back to centralization, with Shared Health as the hub.
"It’s been very unclear when we’re going to get there, because we’re sort of in flux right now. We haven’t quite transitioned to Shared Health. It looks like we’re on our way there, but it’s happening in bits and pieces," said Jackson.
"So that’s part of the frustration — we haven’t finished this transformation that the government started about four-and-a-half years ago. There really hasn’t been a really good plan rolled out that anyone in this province, other than Shared Health and the government, knows. We’re not sure what’s happening."
Amid that confusion, the pandemic hit.
The Pallister government said Monday it had hired a COVID-19 immunization director, a position it advertised two weeks prior, the Winnipeg Free Press reported Thursday. The CBC reported Friday afternoon the person who will be in charge of provincial immunization clinics has been seconded from Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries.
Asked what she would do if she were in charge, Jackson said her first action would be to bring the individuals in the province who are the experts to the table.
"Not one frontline public health nurse has been asked their opinions. And, I’m telling you, they’re in a line waiting to help. One thing I’ll say about nurses is they never bring an issue without bringing a solution to it," she said.
"It seems to be the same with almost everything that’s happening in this province right now. They’re not utilizing the individuals that are right on the ground and can bring solutions that are very basic, very every day, and don’t cost a lot of money."
The Sun also turned to the Association of Regulated Nurses of Manitoba.
"We work closely with the Community Health Nurses of Manitoba, a nursing specialty group that represents nurses working in public health, community health and homecare settings. We consulted with them for input and are able to make the following comments," stated executive director Dr. Cheryl Cusack by email.
"We have heard from public health nurses, who have previously been responsible for planning and implementing immunization programs and clinics, that they want to contribute but have not been engaged."
The association has also heard from retired nurses that have expressed interest in helping that they haven’t heard back from government or Shared Health — and that’s throughout the COVID response.
"We continue to encourage the government to build capacity within the existing provincial health system and utilize the knowledge, skill and expertise of nurses in healthcare planning and decisions," Cusack said.
When Premier Brian Pallister visited Brandon Jan. 13, he erroneously called the Association of Regulated Nurses of Manitoba a union, disparaging them in the process.
"This isn’t the time for union agitation. This is not the time for that. It’s not helpful," he said.
Jackson, who is president of the actual union, said she’s not interested in "agitating," but the government is not listening. She wants to make every effort to collaborate with the government, and has had two recent meetings with Pallister’s new health minister, Heather Stefanson.
"I spend a lot of time bringing issues forward on behalf of nurses and they just feel like they have so many solutions and so many ways to help and they’re not been listened to," she said.
"We want to help. We don’t want to agitate. We want to help. That’s what we want to do. We want to ensure that Manitobans are afforded the best possible health care and we want every Manitoban to be vaccinated," said Jackson.
She said she’s heard from many nurses who have said the same things to her as they did responding to a survey Cusack ran for the members of the Association of Regulated Nurses of Manitoba.
"The pandemic is killing them. They are overworked. Their workload is ridiculous. They are fearful of patient safety," said Jackson, adding it doesn’t matter who brings the message.
"The message from nurses in this province is very clear. This pandemic is bringing us down. The plans were not rolled out. The game is changing so often that nurses really are confused."
The anonymous nurse who spoke with the Sun repeated: Who’s in charge?
"I know everyone is blaming Pallister, but he doesn’t have a hot clue what’s going on in (Prairie Mountain Health) because it’s all been delegated out. When they’re blaming Pallister and (Dr. Brent) Roussin … they don’t have a clue what’s going on out here. They’ve delegated out to people who they believe to be competent. I don’t know that they are. I don’t know who they are," they said.
"Common sense has taken a vacation."
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.