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Quebec is paying full-time nurses bonuses of at least $15,000 each, making it the latest province to turn to unusual measures to keep front-line professionals caring for patients during the pandemic’s wrenching fourth wave.

Premier François Legault announced the payments on Thursday, after months of pandemic-induced stresses that have contributed to a shortage of 4,300 nurses in the province.

Last week, British Columbia announced nearly $6.4-million in funding for efforts to recruit and retain health care workers in the northern part of the province. As COVID-19 case counts there have surged, nurses have begun to leave their jobs or experience work-related burnout, forcing the regional Northern Health Authority to appeal for reinforcements.

Canada’s nursing shortage, a long-standing problem that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, has already forced some hospitals to close beds temporarily, scale back emergency-department hours and delay the full reopening of operating rooms. Now, with winter approaching and anti-vaccine sentiment weighing on morale, health officials fear the problem will worsen.

The Northern Health Authority issued a statement earlier this week about the situation in Fort St. John, the largest community in northeastern B.C. “Our staff are exhausted, overworked, and are facing brutal criticism from the public and insults on their shifts,” the statement said. “We implore people to be kind, patient, and respectful of these staff members and the situation they are facing.”

Quebec offers bonuses up to $18,000 for nurses in struggling health system

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Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said the moves from Quebec, B.C. and other provinces have so far offered only superficial solutions to the critical dearth of nurses.

“We’re seeing governments across the country doing patch work … and it’s not going to fix the shortage, because what nurses are telling us is, it’s the workload that is keeping them away,” she said. “They’re overworked, they’re worried they didn’t do their job properly, worried they made a mistake. And that’s putting too much pressure on them.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Silas’s organization asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to hold a summit of Canada’s health care leaders to discuss priorities across the country.

In the first quarter of 2021, the health care and social-assistance sector saw a larger year-over-year increase in job vacancies than any other sector, according to Statistics Canada. The largest numbers of job postings were for registered nurses, registered psychiatric nurses, nurse’s aides, orderlies and licensed practical nurses.

Total vacancies in the sector rose to 98,700, an increase of nearly 40 per cent over the same time a year earlier. Nearly half the positions for registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses had gone unfilled for 90 days or more.

This week, Alberta asked other provinces and Ottawa to send intensive-care unit nurses and respiratory therapists to help at the province’s overstretched health facilities. B.C. and Saskatchewan have both said they do not have the capacity or resources to help.

Ontario has promised assistance, which it will likely provide by accepting critical-care patients. And Quebec has said it might be able to help with some urgent cardiac surgeries, despite its own staffing crisis.

James Wood, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services, said the health authority had 30,744 registered nurses as of August – about 1,600 more than it had during the same month in 2019 – and that there had been only a slight year-over-year increase in vacancies for nursing jobs.

Although Alberta is not offering bonuses, he said, AHS pays among the highest rates for nurses in Canada.

Quebec, meanwhile, is not merely giving cash incentives to existing nurses. Mr. Legault’s government is also offering $12,000 payments to former nurses who return to work full time in the province’s public health care system. Those already working full time will get priority for better shift schedules over nurses who were hired through private placement agencies to help fill staffing gaps, Mr. Legault said at Thursday’s announcement. And, he said, public nurses already working in the five regions hardest hit by the worker shortage will get an additional $3,000 each, for a total bonus of $18,000.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said earlier this week that northern B.C. has the highest number of new cases per 100,000 population in the province. In the northeast, only about 61 per cent of those eligible for vaccination have received their first doses, compared with the provincial average of 87 per cent.

Dan Davies, a B.C. Liberal MLA whose riding includes the community of Fort St. John, said he has heard of hospital staff working 14- and 15-hour days, with some going 40 consecutive shifts without a day off.

“You can imagine the level of burnout that’s happening,” Mr. Davies said.

Only five of 20 permanent registered nursing jobs are filled on Fort St. John Hospital’s emergency room rotation, according to the Northern Health Authority. The gaps mean other nurses are being diverted to the shift, placing further stress on other rotations.

Angela De Smit, chief operating officer for the Northern Health Authority’s northeast region, said three ICU beds at Fort. St John Hospital have been closed since June, 2020, because of staff shortages at the facility.

“We’ve never had our ICU closed for this extended a period since I’ve been in Fort St. John, and same with the emergency department,” she said.

Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor and director of the University of British Columbia’s nursing school, said there are thousands of unfilled nursing positions across the province. And, she said, the latest estimates predict B.C. will see a shortage of 24,000 nurses in the next five years. The situation is dire in many rural regions across the country, she added.

“They are, in many ways, the glue that holds the health care system together as a system of care,” she said. “Not having enough nurses risks patient safety, poorer health outcomes and untimely death.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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