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'People are suffering': ICU nurse says staffing shortages at hospitals are getting worse

Nearly two-and-a-half years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one front-line nurse says emergency rooms are stretched thin amid constant staffing shortages.

"Things are worse now. And I don't think the general public understands how difficult it is to be a patient or a nurse right now," Birgit Umaigba, an intensive care unit nurse based in Toronto, told CTV News Channel on Monday.

Several hospitals across Ontario announced this weekend they'd be closing temporarily closing or reducing services in their emergency rooms and ICUs due to the ongoing staffing crunch.

Since the start of the pandemic, nurses across Canada have faced long working hours with little time for breaks and vacation.

"It's difficult for patients who have to wait hours in the emergency room just to be seen, let alone be treated," said Umaigba. "People are suffering -- staff and patients alike. It is very challenging right now."

It's a similar story in B.C., where emergency rooms at four hospitals in the province's interior were temporarily closed mid-July. And in New Brunswick, several emergency rooms had to cut their hours due to short staffing.

In June, Statistics Canada reported an all-time high of 136,800 job vacancies within the health sector throughout the first quarter of 2022 -- nearly double the amount reported in the first quarter of 2020. Additionally, one in four nurses said they plan on quitting their job in the next three years.

A survey conducted by the Canadian Union of Public Employees this year found that 87 per cent of 2,600 registered practical nurses in hospitals considered quitting their jobs after facing poor working conditions and abuse from patients' families.

"Nurses are really tired and saying, 'You know what? I'm done.' And the working conditions have not improved. They've actually worsened," said Umaigba.

The ICU nurse said she had to pull a 16-hour shift last week as there was no other nurse to take over caring for a critically ill patient.

"I have colleagues in their 20s, just last week in the nursing lounge, talking about getting started on anti-anxiety medications, just because of the stress of the job, not knowing what to expect when you walk in, taking more than you can really handle," she said.

Last month, Canada's premiers convened in Victoria, calling for more health-care funding from the federal government to address the chronic staffing shortages.

Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones' office told The Canadian Press on Friday in a written statement that the province is working with “all partners,” including hospitals and unions, and said Ontario has "an ambitious plan for the largest health-care recruitment and training initiative in the province's history."

But Umaigba remains skeptical about the province's recruitment plan, adding that since 2019, nurses' wage increases have been capped due to Bill 124.

"Where are they going to recruit nurses from? Which nurses are going to come into this kind of workforce right now and not quit? The workload has increased and nursing salaries are capped at a one per cent increase per year," she said. "That's the number one thing that the Ford government has to work on: repealing Bill 124."

With files from's Deena Zaidi, Melissa Lopez-Martinez and The Canadian Press. Top Stories

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