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A driver enters a shuttle bus at Northwood Manor, one of the largest nursing homes in Atlantic Canada, in Halifax on June 2, 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Nova Scotia’s unionized nurses are demanding action to address chronic staffing shortages that they say have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union held a news conference and rally at its Halifax area headquarters on Friday as part of a national day of action to bring attention to labour shortages in the country’s health system.

In an interview before the event, union president Janet Hazelton said the situation in Nova Scotia is reaching a critical point in long-term and acute care after years of warnings to governments about impending problems.

“We’re not just complaining about the problem, we want to be part of the solution,” said Hazelton. “We are willing to work with whomever to help alleviate this issueterm

She said there are about 1,100 vacancies for registered nurses in the province, 250 spots open for licensed practical nurses and 25 vacancies for nurse practitioners.

“For a province this size, that’s significant,” Hazelton said of the reduced staffing levels.

She said an “intolerable” situation has been compounded by the stress of dealing with the pandemic, resulting in many nurses facing burnout because of longer shifts with fewer vacations and days off.

On Wednesday, the province said “considerable staffing challenges,” including a shortage of nurses that has been made worse by the pandemic, are partly to blame for long emergency room wait times and a reduction of elective surgeries.

According to data from the national union, there’s been a 78 per cent increase in average weekly overtime during the pandemic, while 24-hour nursing shifts are becoming more routine in many regions, including in Nova Scotia.

The data also indicates that 83 per cent of nurses reported staffing levels that were insufficient to meet the needs of patients before the pandemic, while 60 per cent of nurses say they intend to leave their jobs in the next year.

The nursing unions are calling for increased staffing levels, increased federal funding to retain and recruit more nurses and more spaces in schools to graduate more nurses.

“We have to have something more sustainable,” Hazelton said. “We have lots of young women and men on the wait lists at our universities and community colleges. What can we do to make that happen?”

Hazelton said she’s seeing some positive signs of potential change from Nova Scotia’s new Progressive Conservative government, which swept to power last month largely on a pledge to fix the health system.

The union president pointed out that there are now three cabinet ministers whose focus will be on bolstering aspects of the health system including mental health and long-term care.

In a news release Friday, the provincial government said it wants to hear the nurses’ “unique perspective” on a health-care system in need of change.

“There are improvements to make, and our government is committed to making them to improve the system,” the release said.

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