Magnitude of weekend staffing shortage at Manitoba’s biggest hospital shocking: doctor

A Winnipeg emergency doctor is dismayed at the state of the ER at Manitoba’s largest hospital after half of its beds were closed on Friday and nurses were asked to work overtime on the weekend.

Part-time and casual staff were asked to work to shore up resources amid “staffing challenges” at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, a Shared Health spokesperson said in an email on Saturday. 

Those already scheduled to work were asked to work overtime, and some critical care nurses were reassigned.

The Winnipeg Free Press reported on Friday that HSC’s emergency department had to close about half of its beds Friday due to a lack of nurses. 

“I’ve been practising for over 20 years. I’ve never seen it,” said Dr. Doug Eyolfson, an emergency department physician.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this has happened in Winnipeg, to have closures of this magnitude and to have that many beds closed due to lack of staff.”

Emergency physician Dr. Doug Eyolfson says he’s nervous to go back to work after suffering a heart attack in July because of the state of health care in the province. (James Turner/CBC)

The emergency department was down to only eight nurses in a shift, well short of the 24 needed to fully staff a shift.

“The number of beds is always a function of how many nurses there are to look after them. Basically, if there isn’t a nurse to look after a patient in the bed, it’s just a piece of furniture,” said Eyolfson, who was the Liberal MP for the Winnipeg riding of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley from 2015 to 2019. 

He’s concerned the health-care situation provincewide will get worse because COVID-19 case numbers are expected to swell in the fall.

“As a society, people are somehow thinking that COVID went away and that the pandemic is over. It’s far from over,” Eyolfson said.

“We are still seeing people coming into emergency with COVID, people … having to be admitted to ICU with COVID. And we’re also seeing staff members that basically have to call in sick because they’ve had symptoms.”

All that means staff are going through a lot, he said.

“People are desperately tired, frustrated, frightened and burned out.”

Darlene Jackson, the president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, echoed Eyolfson’s concerns.

“This is probably the worst we’ve been in the last couple of years, and I don’t see it getting any better,” she said in an interview on Monday.

More nurses are leaving the public health system and looking toward retirement than are entering the profession, she said.

“I think the most important thing the employers and this province can do is retain — they need to retain every nurse in this system … and they need to keep those nurses in the system until we can bolster our system with new grads,” Jackson said.

A Shared Health spokesperson says nurse staffing challenges will continue to be “significant” in the week ahead, but not as pronounced as it was over the weekend.

Twenty-four nurses picked up shifts over those days, and others extended their shifts.

“Shared Health will continue to work to fill various staffing holes in the same way it did in recent days. This includes staff callouts, offering overtime, managers working on the floor to support patient care and reassigning nurses from other areas, such as critical care,” the spokesperson said in an email on Monday afternoon.

A Black woman wearing a yellow dress stands in front of a grey brick wall.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon says she’s working on a plan to address staffing issues at Health Sciences Centre. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Health Minister Audrey Gordon acknowledged Monday that the province’s health-care system is “dealing with a lot of challenges.”

She said she’s working with Shared Health to create a plan to address staffing shortages, from training additional nurses to having paramedics or physician assistants there to help triage patients. 

Shared Health added it’s working to recruit and retain nursing staff with new mentorship programs, creating a provincial float pool and financial incentives to increase the number of shifts that nurses work each week.

Gordon said she’s grateful to the staff who did help this past weekend, but acknowledged the work takes its toll.

“Our health-care heroes are tired and they’re feeling the pressure of the increased admissions to our emergency departments. Shared Health and WRHA are certainly aware of those pressures and those increased wait times,” she said at a news conference in Steinbach announcing a new renal unit at the Bethesda Regional Health Centre.

“The pandemic has amplified and exposed some gaps, some barriers and challenges that we need to overcome.”

Eyolfson, who’s been off on medical leave since a July heart attack, plans to return to work in October or November, depending on his recovery.

“I’m apprehensive about the working conditions I’ll find but, you know, all I can do is my best to go in and see my patients, provide the best medical care I can, and that’s all that can be asked of anyone.”

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