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Retired nurse Teresa Meierhofer at her home in Pritchard, B.C., on May 5, 2021.Kathryn Learie/The Globe and Mail

As the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a redeployment of health resources, nurses are upset that doctors are getting paid up to five times as much as them for doing the same tasks.

In often-uneasy new staffing realities, British Columbia physicians are earning three to four times more than registered nurses to work in COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics and Ontario doctors are being paid up to five times as much.

In B.C., nurses are troubled that highly paid physicians are giving shots at immunization clinics when there are retired nurses with decades of experience, in addition to those practising on a part-time and casual basis, who are willing to help.

“As taxpayers, many of these retirees are frustrated to see other professions receiving higher rates of pay for work that they can do,” said Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union. “Retired nurses really could contribute to the vaccine rollout on a much grander scale than they currently are right now.”

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Doctors working in B.C.’s vaccination clinics are being paid $146.38 an hour, unless they are providing services under an existing contract, a government spokeswoman said. Registered nurses earn between $36.23 and $47.58 an hour, according to their collective agreement.

Vancouver public-health nurse Angie Mackie said about half the immunizers she has worked with in vaccination clinics are doctors, both practising and retired, despite an expanded list of professions that can staff such facilities, including midwives, pharmacists and firefighters.

“To be sitting beside someone who’s making three times the amount of money doing the exact same job, and it’s health care dollars … just doesn’t sit well with me,” she said. “It does feel disrespectful to us when you’re hearing all these people that were willing to come out of retirement to help out and then not getting shifts.”

Among the immunizers Ms. Mackie has encountered are her former family doctor, who pared down her practice before the pandemic, as well as an anesthetist and surgeon. She has had to give some physicians refresher training on delivering intramuscular injections.

When the B.C. government asked retired health care workers to consider helping in COVID-19 vaccination clinics, former nurse Teresa Meierhofer felt a sense of duty to get involved, despite worrying that being exposed to the virus would prevent her from being able to visit her husband in long-term care. But she has not been tapped to support the rollout.

“I have this real immense sense of obligation to help out as much as I could,” said Ms. Meierhofer, 71, who worked as a public-health nurse for more than 40 years before fully retiring in 2018.

After submitting her application in early March, Ms. Meierhofer, who lives outside Kamloops, didn’t hear back until last week, when she received a generic e-mail asking for her résumé and references. The delay has soured her eagerness into “anger and frustration,” she said.

Terry Webber, a semi-retired nurse who is an advocate for former nurses who want to work as immunizers, said she doesn’t understand why regional health authorities aren’t rushing to hire them.

“Is there a bit of ageism here? Do they think we can’t do the job?” she asked. “Especially when it comes to vaccinations, as we say, we can do it in our sleep. Please, let us help.”

B.C. health authorities are using a “team-based approach” to staffing immunization clinics and workers are typically being paid their usual rates, according to Ministry of Health spokeswoman Marielle Tounsi.

“Nurses are being used in significant numbers, but we cannot ask them to do it alone,” she said.

Vancouver Coastal Health relies on a range of health care professionals and “a multidisciplinary mix of immunizers gives the general public confidence in the safety of our vaccine sites,” said spokesman Jeremy Deutsch.

Matthew Chow, president of Doctors of BC, said the number of health care workers willing to deliver immunizations exceeds the vaccine supply. He acknowledged “frustration” among those who have not been asked to help.

In Ontario, physicians working at vaccination sites co-ordinated by hospitals and public-health units are being paid $170 an hour, which rises to $220 an hour during evenings, weekends and holidays. Registered nurses who work in hospitals earn between $33.90 and $48.53 an hour.

Toronto Public Health said about 90 per cent of immunizers at its clinics are nurses, with doctors representing roughly 5 per cent of those delivering shots.

“Our preference is to recruit nurses as immunizers in our city-run immunization clinics; however, they are in high demand in other parts of the health system,” associate medical officer of health Vinita Dubey said in a statement.

In addition, some Ontario physicians are taking on critical care nursing roles in intensive-care units struggling with staffing levels because of an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Nurses are often tasked with helping to provide training to doctors redeployed from other wards, which is causing resentment given the wage discrepancy, said Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.

“The message that sends to nurses is that they are not valued in the system for the work they do,” she said.

A Ministry of Health spokeswoman did not provide details on compensation for physicians performing nursing duties, saying the matter falls under the purview of hospitals. For its part, the Ontario Hospital Association referred questions to the ministry.

Hope after getting a shot but frustration over the booking process are two themes that emerged when The Globe spoke to people at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a Toronto neighbourhood.

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