RNAO addresses nursing crisis, Omicrom-led wave and preventing health-system collapse

Three RNAO media releases during the last week addressed the current pandemic context in Ontario and the responses from government.

1. RNAO’s media conference - Nursing crisis risks patient safety and health of Ontarians: Premier Ford must #RepealBill124 to prevent health-system collapse

In a Dec. 14 media release, RNAO says the provincial government’s failure to repeal Bill 124 is wreaking havoc on the nursing profession, patient safety and Ontario’s health-care system. RNAO warns that the government must take swift action to confront the province’s nursing crisis, to make sure there are enough nurses – especially registered nurses (RN) – available to deal with the coming fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the backlog of procedures and surgeries.

At a media conference today (Dec. 14), RNAO laid out a grim scenario as Ontario recorded another 1,429 new infections and five COVID-related deaths. At issue is a major nursing human resources crisis exacerbated by Bill 124, the legislation passed by Premier Ford which caps salary increases to just one per cent. The increase actually results in a reduction in pay when inflation is taken into account. This is a slap in the face to nurses at a time when they are working harder and harder to care for Ontarians. 

“Bill 124 is having a detrimental effect on the profession, like nothing I have seen before. We are losing nurses of all categories and we are hemorrhaging RNs. Ontario had a shortfall of 22,000 RNs before this pandemic began. And, when you factor in the length of the pandemic and the exhaustion and burnout our colleagues have been experiencing, we desperately need a government that recognizes nurses’ efforts and brings hope by moving to immediately #RepealBill124,” urges Dr. Doris Grinspun, RNAO’s CEO.

RNAO outlined the gravity of the situation at a rally on Nov. 14, when nurses and allies gathered and implored Premier Ford to repeal Bill 124 within 30 days. “Today (Dec. 14) marks the end of the countdown. We are at day zero and nurses are stunned they have been met with complete silence from the premier. This is being perceived as a blatant lack of respect for nurses, who have been under tremendous pressure and who have sacrificed and risked their lives and the lives of their loved ones for the past 22 months,” Grinspun says, echoing nurses in the field.

While the government has taken no action, RNAO has been heartened by the support it is receiving from opposition MPPs. During today’s media conference, RNAO revealed that all of Ontario’s NDP, Liberal and Green party MPPs have signed a letter pledging that they will vote to #RepealBill124 if Premier Ford enacts legislation to repeal it.

“As health-care professionals grapple with two variants of COVID-19 – Delta and a galloping Omicron – and we are in a rush to get vaccines into the arms of as many Ontarians as possible, it is obvious the health system is once again at risk of collapsing. Thus, we implore once again to Premier Ford to #StandWithNurses and #RepealBill124,” says RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth.

“In the coming days and weeks, while people spend time with friends and family, nurses will continue the fight of their lives on the frontlines. Ontarians must understand the gravity of the situation because it ultimately affects their safety as patients and their access to health services,” says Hoffarth. “The province’s nursing crisis demands a fulsome plan, and a critical first step is to #RepealBill24.”

“As part of its campaign to #RepealBill124, RNAO is asking its 48,500 members and allies from other professions and the public to drop off cards at their MPP local constituency offices to thank those politicians who are supporting us and ask others to sign our pledge,” says Hoffarth. People can also join RNAO’s campaign online.  

2. Response to the Ontario government Dec. 15 announcement - RNAO welcomes plan to move up eligibility dates for third doses. Free rapid tests. Urges additional public health measures to slow down the spread of Omicron.

In its Dec. 15 media release, RNAO welcomes news that the province is expanding eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots to everyone over 18 years of age as of Monday (Dec. 20). Previously, the government announced those over 18 had to wait until Jan. 4.

“Omicron is explosive,” says Dr. Doris Grinspun, RNAO CEO. “Today’s tally of 1,808 infections and another nine deaths is alarming and vaccination offers the best protection against the galloping spread of Omicron. This is why we urge every Ontarian who is eligible to get vaccinated, and for all those who already have, get your booster shot.” 

Grinspun says she is also pleased Premier Ford is making millions of rapid antigen tests provided by the federal government available for free at various locations in communities across the province. This is another crucial step to fight the exponential case increases of Omicron. RNAO’s CEO adds that “efforts to lower capacity limits are insufficient, and missing in the announcement altogether are other urgent public health measures that RNAO and epidemiologists have been calling for.” These urgent measures include: 

  • making N-95 masks available immediately to all health-care workers across the system, starting with those in long-term care homes and retirement homes – given that COVID-19 is airborne
  • mandating vaccinations (three doses) for all health-care workers and all education staff
  • making public health units responsible for providing vaccine waivers to relieve family physicians and nurse practitioners from that burden, and incorporating these waivers into the QR system
  • imposing additional capacity limits for public venues and private gatherings, and reinforcing the need for vaccine verification in public venues
  • repealing Bill 124 immediately to retain nurses in Ontario’s health system

Grinspun says, “The shortfall of RNs is already compromising patient care and hospitals will not be able to cope with surges in intensive care units if these expert professionals continue to leave hospitals because of Bill 124.” This is why RNAO has repeatedly “urged Premier Ford and his government to understand the magnitude of the situation in critical care and that the pandemic has taken on a new urgency. Repeal this bill to retain RNs or risk a hospital collapse. The impact on Ontarians requiring both COVID-19 and non-COVID critical care services will be tragic.”

RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth also urges aggressive action to avoid even more dangerous variants in the future. She echoed the World Health Organization’s plea that “the emergence of the Omicron variant is the result of global vaccine inequity. The only way to stop the virus from mutating is to stop it running rampant among unvaccinated populations in poor and vulnerable countries.” “The federal government must forcefully act to address global vaccine inequity,” says Hoffarth.

Hoffarth adds, “That’s why RNAO is labeling the Omicron variant as the #VaccineInjusticeVariant. If there is no vaccine equity, there is no health for all.” She stresses that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must act now. “Canada must lead in the effort to make vaccines available to everyone around the world now – not in a year or two. If everyone around the world is not safe, no one is safe.”

3. Response to Ontario public health measures announced Dec. 17 - RNAO says government’s new measures essential but not enough to blunt Omicron’s force

The public health measures announced Friday Dec. 17 are essential steps but not enough to contain the out-of-control spread of the Omicron virus or to prevent a collapse of the health system, says RNAO in its Dec. 17 media release.

The association says much stronger measures are needed to address the magnitude of the challenge facing the province. “Capacity limits provided today are too generous given the millions of Ontarians over the age of 18 still in line to get booster shots, and the demand for boosters outstrips our capacity to deliver them quickly,” says RNAO CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun, noting that nurses play a significant role in vaccine distribution.

Earlier this week, the association implored Premier Doug Ford to treat nurses with the respect they deserve. “Not only are they running on empty, they are working for less pay because of Bill 124, legislation that caps nurses’ salaries to just one per cent,” says Grinspun, adding the best way to ensure there are enough nurses to fight the explosive growth in new infections is to immediately repeal Bill 124.

“Nurses care deeply about their patients and they keep going to work facing insurmountable challenges. Their patient assignments have increased dramatically. Most still do not have the N95 masks needed to keep them and their colleagues safe given that COVID-19 is airborne, and they feel increasingly ignored by a government that does not care about their health and wellbeing,” says Morgan Hoffarth, RNAO President referring to Bill 124. Hoffarth added nurses and Ontarians can send a message to Premier Ford by contacting their local MPP.

Hoffarth also urges Ontarians to do their part by adhering to all public health measures for the sake of their own health and that of their families. “This is a virus that knows no bounds. We all have an obligation to look out for ourselves and for one another.”