Nurses in Manitoba have been central to the pandemic response in the province and data from an Association of Regulated Nurses in Manitoba survey shows they have a lot to say about the impact COVID-19 has had on them and those in their care.
That survey indicates the health-care system is at a breaking point due to its fragility and that the outdated organizational structures generally fail to recognize and value the professional expertise of nurses, according to the association’s news release.
More than 1,100 nurses across various care settings responded to the survey.
"Every day, nurses provide expert, quality and compassionate care to patients in Manitoba. In fact, it is often the nursing profession and nurses who have the most in-depth knowledge of patients, clients and populations," said Cheryl Cusack, the association’s executive director.
"This makes it extremely troubling that the survey findings show a massive disconnect between nurses and decision-makers as they express concern for clients, whether those individuals are in long-term care, acute care or the community."
The survey highlighted that there was a lack of provincial planning and preparedness as the second wave of the virus hit the province, resulting in patients and clients not receiving the level of care they need due to staff shortages, mandated overtime, increased patient needs, and nurses being redeployed to areas outside of their expertise.
"Despite the fact that the second wave was highly predictable, the government failed to have a long-term pandemic plan for the people of Manitoba, which has hurt the people of Manitoba," association president Jennifer Dunsford said.
"Given our experience with the first wave, the government should have taken appropriate steps to increase contact tracing capacity, hire more staff and provide health-care workers with the resources they need in order to protect Manitobans and save lives."
When asked Wednesday if he had a response for the association regarding its concerns, Premier Brian Pallister said he had two.
"First of all, this isn’t a time for union campaigns. This is a time to work together. Let’s be honest about it. This is a stressful time, and I have nothing but respect for our frontline workers, and especially our nurses working at risk to take care of people. This isn’t the time for union agitation. This is not the time for that. It’s not helpful," said Pallister.
"Secondly, we just created a new portfolio of mental health, specifically to work on mental-health issues. And we’ve focused as a government on these issues, making available, free to Manitobans, thousands of Manitobans, mental-health services. So I take the concerns that nurses raise very, very seriously."
He concluded by repeating it isn’t the time to use COVID as an agitation opportunity.
Cusack clarified by email to the Sun that the association is not a union, but a membership-based organization representing almost 10,000 nurses with a mandate of providing the professional voice of nurses. That’s unlike the Manitoba Nurses Union, which is the union representing 12,000 nurses in Manitoba. The union has also been vocal about issues related to COVID-19.
Cusack said the goal of sharing the survey is to work together, and to that end, the association shared the results of the survey with the provincial government in December.
"Making visible the declining mental and physical health of (our) largest health-care workforce was not done to agitate. We felt an ethical responsibility to make public the very serious concerns our members have shared, most of which pertained to strained work environments and the resulting impacts for patient/client populations," she said.
In an interview with the Sun Wednesday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew called Pallister’s statement regarding the nurses association "unfortunate," adding that if every Manitoban were surveyed, the result would be that most feel the government was unprepared for the second wave.
"And if the premier is still surprised by that, then he’s probably not paying attention to a lot of the conversations going on around," he said.
"But the health and well-being of nurses is going to have a direct impact on our ability to beat the pandemic. I don’t think that the premier should be dismissing these concerns, because they are concerns that we’ve heard time and time again from the people on the frontlines of our health-care system. They need to be addressed."
Kinew has heard nurses say, "We’re thinking about quitting," and "We’re at the end of our rope."
Nurses who responded in the survey – 96 per cent of whom are registered nurses – also expressed worry about impacts for their families, their own mental and physical health, and ultimately the long-term effects on the profession, including the potential for many to leave nursing altogether, the association stated.
At a Thursday COVID-19 press briefing, chief nursing officer for Shared Health Lanette Siragusa said she hadn’t read the statement from the association, but she agreed the pandemic has taken its toll on most healthcare workers.
"It’s been a real slog, trying to deal with the demand. We know that staff have been redeployed to different areas, working with different teams in areas that they may not be familiar with. We have done our best and we’ve been working with the nursing colleges, the union, to make sure that there was orientation," she said.
Siragusa also said there are supports available to nurses.
"It’s hard," she said. "It’s stressful. There’s no denying that. We’re looking forward to things continuing to stabilize and building up the workplace so that people can get back to some sense of normalcy."
» 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.