RNAO’s continuing media profile: The April report

As we battle a relentless and stubborn third wave of COVID-19 driven by dangerous variants, RNAO continues to speak out on the pandemic and its impact on nurses, other health-care workers and Ontarians.

Ontario’s health system is on the precipice of collapse and nothing short of a complete lockdown and stay-at-home order are needed to combat a fast and furious third wave of COVID-19. That’s the message that RNAO put out to Ontarians on April 1. It was a response to the tepid public health measures announced that day by the premier of Ontario. The premier announced a 28-day province-wide shutdown that wasn’t strict enough as it allowed non-essential businesses to operate. RNAO said the announcement did not go far enough to confront the biggest health crisis facing Ontarians and the province, since the outset of this pandemic.

In an April 5 QP Briefing article, I said that a stay-at-home order is crucial to saving lives and our health system. “This situation is serious, serious with [outbreaks in] warehouses, serious with [outbreaks in] food packing plants…and the only thing that it seems the government now is waiting (for) is that the P1 [more dangerous Brazil] variant starts to spread like the B.1.1.7. [UK variant which has already spread], and that will be the end of us,” I explained. I also told CFRA Ottawa on April 6 that it was negligent to not lockdown the province: “It’s lack of action for political reasons, not evidence[-based driven decisions].” This RNAO theme has recurred for the whole month of April. In a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star (April 27) we insisted on the urgency of implementing a minimum of 10 paid sick days, keeping only essential businesses open (such as food and medication) and accelerating the vaccine rollout especially in vulnerable workplaces and communities . In short: “Nurses demand swift action and we demand it now.”

On April 16, Premier Ford announced new measures to officially lockdown the province. These measures included extending the stay-at-home order and provincial declaration of emergency. The premier also announced Ontario would implement border restrictions and limit people’s movement into the province from Manitoba and Quebec. However, as we said in our RNAO response, the premier opted to again choose ideology over science. He did not close all essential businesses. Some of his new measures such as closing playgrounds and giving new powers to police caused an uproar from many, including RNAO. The Science Table has clearly indicated the source of transmission is in indoor congregate places, not outside in playgrounds. Also, granting police the authority to stop individuals and question them on their whereabouts is highly troubling given the history of carding in the province (“carding” refers to stopping and questioning individuals with no particular reason). After much backlash and resistance from regional police chiefs, this particular power was scaled back with the premier apologizing for moving too fast on closing playgrounds and adding to police powers, especially how that power would affect essential workers on their way to work.

In an interview with 980 CFPL about the RNAO’s reaction to the expansion of hospital beds, I told host Mike Stubbs that the solution to the influx of ICU and ER admissions is not to expand the number of beds, but to stop the spread of the virus. I also expressed deep concern for workers in factories. “Those people coming to those factories are working in precarious situations. They work minimum wage and don’t have sick days…They are paying the price of this pandemic.” Inequities have been front and centre throughout the Ontario pandemic, but the third wave is particularly notorious in this regard. The hot zones of the third wave are in congregate blue-collar workplaces and in racialized and marginalized communities with crowded housing, multigenerational families and many workers who cannot afford to stay at home even when they are unwell. 

On April 20, RNAO issued a statement on paid sick days. In the statement, RNAO said “any delay will cause undue hardship and cost more lives. We must allow essential workers to stay home if they are sick in order to beat this virus.” On April 22, the premier mentioned that a sick leave plan was in the works but provided no further details. As I told the Canadian Press that same day, the time for emotional pleas is over and inaction results in more lives lost. On April 28, the minister of labour announced the province’s temporary paid sick days plan, which would provide employees three paid days of leave if they miss work due to illness, have COVID-19 symptoms or need time off to get vaccinated. The government will reimburse employers up to $200 per day per employee, for a total of $600. I told the Canadian Press that three days is insufficient to protect workers and to stop the third wave and that we will continue to see further illness and outbreaks if they’re not given at least 10 paid sick days. On April 29 in CityNews Ottawa’s The Rob Snow Show, I said that when a person is sick or isolating they don’t have the time to fill in forms and that it needs to be a permanent employer-based program. Simply put, “Everyone should have the right to stay home when they’re sick.”

This spring, RNAO released the results of our Work and Wellbeing Survey. The primary finding of the survey was that at least 13 per cent of RNs ages 26-35 reported that they were very likely to leave the profession after the pandemic. I told the Toronto Star that this would have a huge negative impact on our health-care system. “Losing so many RNs at an early stage in their careers would have a profound and lasting effect on how our health system functions.” An April 13 Sudbury.com article quoted RNAO President Morgan Hoffarth on nurses’ concerns: “Our colleagues are exhausted, some are even at a breaking point and what they want is a government that gives them the help they need: more staffing and more supports.”  On April 24, Birgit Umaigba, one of our RNAO members who has been awesome at sharing her experience as an ICU RN during COVID-19, told Global News about the impact the pandemic is having on her and her colleagues: “the amount of dead people we see… The Code Blues, the chaos is really affecting a lot of people.” In response to the crunch in ICUs, the province recently gave hospitals the power to transfer patients to long-term care (LTC) homes without their consent. On April 28, I told QP Briefing that’s disastrous as LTC homes do not have the proper staffing to take care of their own residents, much less of transferred hospital patients. I said such a situation can only happen when there is no functioning government in the province.

The third wave has had a devastating impact on our ICUs and raised a dramatic need for more critical care nurses. The problem has long roots as we didn’t have enough RNs even before the pandemic. On April 21, I told Global News, “we have the lowest RN-to-population ratio in Canada, so of course you won’t have [enough] ICU nurses [when you need them,] and now you layer on that a [COVID] crisis of mega proportions.” With the record-high daily COVID-19 cases pushing towards 5,000, RNAO activated VIANurse to augment nursing human resources in critical care on April 14, 2021. "Nurses know how desperate the situation is," I told QP Briefing (April 12). I was addressing the plans for new ICU beds, and asking: Where will the nurses to staff them come from? The health minister promised that ICU beds would be properly staffed but extra training for ICU nurses is often required. I provided my response to that in Toronto Star on April 12: “We can move certain nurses from the recovery room, from the operation rooms… [but] even they need training.” The lesson for Ontarians is that RN human resources are central to a well-functioning healthcare system, and cost-cutting that diminishes their numbers has negative impacts both in the short and the long run .

On vaccine rollout, President Morgan Hoffarth said in an April 16 RNAO media release that "an all-hands-on-deck approach to vaccinate people must be implemented immediately. It is the only way to ensure those in essential workplaces and living in communities identified by public health authorities as hot zones are vaccinated quickly." To achieve this, she said "nurses, physicians, pharmacists, dentists, paramedics and others who are willing and able to vaccinate should be deployed. And mobile units – including home care nurses – should be sent to essential workplaces and hot spots, en masse." RNAO continues to insist on vaccination at warehouses and factories where essential workers are and at highly-impacted communities facing multi-pronged challenges. On April 11, I told the Toronto Sun “many people cannot take time off work to go get vaccinated. And when their shift ends, the vaccine clinics are closed.” “We must fully engage nurses and doctors in primary care and home care to accelerate the vaccine rollout and get us through this dark, dark tunnel.”

RNAO’s advocacy and media outreach led to 433 hits in April. We will continue to speak out for our members and for the health of Ontarians. To keep up with RNAO’s media coverage visit the COVID-19 Portal press room.