Nova Scotia is currently experiencing a nursing shortage, one that the province's nurses' union president said is the worst she's seen in the last three decades.
Hundreds of shifts across the province are being left empty as nurses take temporary COVID-19 related positions or quit due to unfavourable circumstances.
"The challenge that we're seeing is the amount of health-care workers, specifically nurses, that have gone to work in Public Health doing vaccines, contract tracing, testing," Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said. "So, when you take several hundred nurses out of the system that's already under pressure, that doesn't help."
Earlier in July, CBC News reported that at least 25 nurses at the QEII Health Sciences Centre's Halifax Infirmary emergency room had quit in the last two months. Those nurses didn't have another job lined up.
That results in emergency room staff levels usually remaining at half capacity; it's an issue that's causing many nurses to burn out.
"Many of our rural hospitals are having significant challenges in their emergency departments and in their special units," she said. "So, it's not any pocket. It deems to be province-wide."
The issues also don't stop at local emergency rooms.
Hazelton said there are currently significant nurse shortages in long-term care. Some employers are even adding incentives for new employees, such as signing bonuses, to attract new nurses.
In the first quarter of 2020, the total vacancy rate — including Nova Scotia Health registered nurses and licensed practical nurses — was seven per cent. Now, that number has rose to 20 per cent.
As Nova Scotia takes steps toward its final reopening phase and cuts COVID-19 measures, Hazelton said there are many nurses who took a temporary leave to work the pandemic front-lines who will return to their normal positions.
"Hopefully, with time, we'll be able to fix some of the problems," she said. "But the overall problem of a nursing shortage has to be addressed in a more wholesome way."
She said the province will have to consider issues such as whether there are enough nursing school seats, if newly-graduated nurses are staying in Nova Scotia and if there's anything that can be done to entice nurses who are close to retiring to continue working.
Moreover, workplaces need to ensure their locations are safe and well-staffed. Hazelton said nurses know they don't have to put up with poor workplaces since they can easily find work elsewhere.
She said Nova Scotia needs to create a comprehensive plan, not for the next two months but for the next 15 years, focusing on how this issue can be solved.
That could include increasing the number of seats that are available in nursing programs across the province.
Earlier this month, the province announced that a total of 70 permanent nursing seats were coming to Cape Breton University and Dalhousie University's Yarmouth campus.
"We have the people in Nova Scotia that want to be nurses," she said. "It's just to make sure that Nova Scotia Health and politicians make the decision to increase the seats."
Currently, Nova Scotia Health is focusing on filling positions at emergency departments. In the province's central health zone, 14 out of around 19 vacant positions have recently been filled; most of those nurses start their jobs in September.
Nova Scotia Health is also working with the province's unions to create a labour management committee which will consider how best to fill vacant nursing positions in the short term.