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Ambulances parked by the emergency department at Toronto Western Hospital on July 14, 2022. The Ontario Nurses’ Association estimates that about 25 hospitals in all corners of the province had to close parts of their operations over the long weekend, including emergency rooms, because of shortages of workers.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones will not commit to any new measures that might immediately relieve pressure on the province’s overburdened health care system, which has been plagued by acute staffing shortages in recent weeks.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) estimates that about 25 hospitals in all corners of the province had to close parts of their operations over the long weekend, including emergency rooms, because of shortages of workers. Bowmanville Hospital’s six-bed intensive care unit remains closed after shutting down last week. There is no timeline for the unit’s reopening, and its patients have been sent to Oshawa and Ajax.

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Asked in an interview on Tuesday if the provincial government was considering any short-term actions to address the crisis, or if it would introduce any related legislation or regulations when the legislature returns next week, the Health Minister did not answer directly.

Ms. Jones, who was appointed to her post at the end of June, said there has been a “lot of work already done” to address staffing challenges. She said Ontario’s health care system has added 10,500 new workers since the start of the pandemic.

When asked if the system is in crisis, Ms. Jones said: “Ontario and Canada should be proud of the health care system that we have.”

“I think that there are opportunities that we will continue to work through to make sure that we have a sufficient supply of individuals who want to work in the system.”

Nurses in the province have been calling on the government to repeal Bill 124, which they say would help alleviate the staffing crisis. The bill caps increases to their salaries, and those of other public-sector workers, at one per cent annually for one contract term. After introducing the legislation, the government offered nurses a one-time $5,000 “retention bonus.”

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Ms. Jones said any changes would need to take other parts of the health care system into account, to ensure they aren’t negatively impacted. She referenced the need for a strong home care and long-term care system in order to move people out of hospitals.

“We will absolutely continue to work with the sector to make sure that anything and any changes that are forthcoming are going to help the system as a whole and not just one particular organization or part of the health care circle,” she said.

In another interview on Tuesday, Ms. Jones told The Canadian Press that she would introduce “additional measures” to boost the capacity of the health care system, and specifically mentioned a backlog of internationally trained workers waiting for certifications.

ONA president Cathryn Hoy said she expects the situation to get worse before it improves, especially during August and the Labour Day weekend. She said one of the first actions the government should take is to repeal Bill 124, which was passed in 2019.

The wage cap during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted registered nurses to leave the province because they felt disrespected by the government, she said, adding that she was contacted by about 1,000 nurses over the weekend about the stark situations facing their hospitals.

“It’s bad. We’re not crying wolf. It’s the truth and people need to pay attention,” Ms. Hoy said.

Ms. Jones said she doesn’t believe Bill 124 is the primary cause of the staffing crunch. Instead, she blamed the problem on a series of challenges that are impacting health care systems across Canada. She noted that summer vacations and work absences related to COVID-19 infections have also impacted worker availability in recent weeks, and said the government is monitoring hiring levels at hospitals.

The most recent survey from the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) in March said about 9 per cent of positions at hospitals are unfilled, or about 13 per cent when only registered nurse positions were included in the count. The Ontario Council of Hospital Unions estimates a shortage of 20,000 nurses across the province.

Emergency room wait times have been on the rise in the province. According to public data from May, the latest available from Ontario Health, the average length of stay for those waiting to be admitted was 20.1 hours. The OHA said this was the longest wait time in any month of the past 14 years, except for January of this year, at the peak of the Omicron wave.

Only 24 per cent of patients were admitted to hospital within the target time of eight hours. On average, patients in May had to wait 2.1 hours to be assessed by a doctor in the emergency room.

Hospitals are also reporting a high number of patients waiting to be transferred to other forms of care, including long-term care and home care. The number of patients in hospitals waiting for home care reached 900 in June, a record high for the past five years, according to the OHA.

Hospital staff absences because of COVID-19 infections have doubled since May, The Toronto Star reported Tuesday based on data obtained from Ontario Health. During the week of July 16-22, almost 4,800 staff were off because of the virus.

Total hospitalizations because of COVID-19 decreased slightly across the province last week from 507 admissions to 402. This was the first weekly decrease since the start of the pandemic’s seventh wave.

The Ontario Liberal Party called on the government to take action Tuesday, after first raising concerns three weeks ago. Emergency physician and newly elected Liberal MPP Adil Shamji said Ms. Jones and Premier Doug Ford should release a plan to address the pressures on hospitals.

“By repeatedly ignoring the needs of our health care system and not valuing our health care workers, their neglect is compromising care for patients across Ontario,” Dr. Shamji said.

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