Nurses need more than just appreciation

As Omicron spreads, safety of nurses should be a priority

A woman is dressed in medical equipment, wearing a face mask and a head covering. A stethoscope is draped over her shoulders, and she is looking at the camera unflinchingly, perhaps with some exhaustion.
Nurses fill a crucial role in our healthcare system. PHOTO: Bermix Studio / Unsplash

By: Charlene Aviles, Staff Writer

In the pandemic’s early days, Vancouver residents cheered for healthcare workers. However, tangible support for them has been sparse. Even in the best of times, nurses have faced staffing shortages and workplace safety issues. While nursing involves exposure to disease, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted additional workplace safety issues. Applause on its own is not enough. As nurses sacrifice their safety to take care of patients, they need more support and resources, not overtime hours and exhaustion.

In 2021, there were a recorded 22,400 vacancies, resulting from decades of misdirected policies. From limited nursing school admission rates to the consistent neglect that has led to notoriously poor working conditions, nurses urgently need more support and resources, especially as they continue to battle the pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions reported: “Canadian nurses’ average weekly overtime hours increased by 78%.” While employers increase nurses’ overtime to resolve the staffing shortage, this is an unsustainable approach. Nursing staff are stretched so thin that some healthcare facilities are considering asking nurses to come into work despite having tested positive for COVID-19.

Further, an undercover investigation by CBC found that there is no required staff-to-resident ratio in nursing homes. There should be a minimum staff-to-resident ratio. A skewed ratio is recognized to cause increased risk of adverse health effects among all healthcare facilities. As a result, a single staff member is often assigned to multiple residents. Numbers have been reported as high as one nurse for over 40 residents. The overwhelming workload makes it harder for staff to complete their tasks. Excess overtime endangers both nurses and patients’ safety. 

Although employers are required to enforce personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines, during the PPE shortage of the early pandemic, many medical staff were forced to use surgical masks instead of N95 masks — and in some cases no mask. Surgical masks are less effective at filtering airborne particles such as COVID-19. 

Improperly protected, nurses run an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 — among many other diseases — endangering themselves and their patients. A 2021 BC Nurses’ Union survey found 36% of respondents had restricted access to proper safety equipment. Inconsistent access to PPE endangers nurses who are already enduring stressful working conditions. Nurses cannot work without PPE, nor should they be expected to do so. 

Nurses’ concerns need to be addressed before the nurse deficit drops even lower — 35% of surveyed BC nurses reported they are likely to quit nursing within the next two years, with the number even higher for ICU nurses: 51%. By lobbying to increase funding for medical programmes and staff, training more nurses, and trying our best to not make the pandemic any worse than it already is, we can alleviate some of the issues medical staff are facing. Throughout the pandemic, nurses have consistently shown their dedication to their patients. Let’s return the favour.