RNAO’s continuing media profile: The February report

We’re nearing the one-year mark since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and RNAO continues its unstoppable efforts to address the challenges we face in Ontario. We are proud of the central role we play in the media, and here is a summary of the issues we raised during February.

As more COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Ontario, RNAO has insisted that the rollout be in the hands of community providers. In a Feb. 12 letter to the editor in the Toronto Sun, I stated Ontario needs to move away from hospital-delivered vaccinations and accelerate vaccine distribution by relying on nurses working in public health, primary care and home care, as well as physicians and pharmacists through established networks. I also urged to quickly vaccinate vulnerable populations, including persons who are homeless and individuals over the age of 60 who are most at risk. I urged the premier to ensure a plan was set to have vaccinations administered 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. On Feb. 5, in the National Post, I said: “We absolutely need to never have a vaccine in a fridge. We get the vaccine and we put it in [people’s] arms.” On March 5, Health Canada approved the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for use in Canada making it the fourth approved so far.

I also raised concerns about how Ontarians will know it’s their turn for the vaccine. “Where will they be going?” I asked on Feb. 17 in CTV News Ottawa. “If they’re not technology savvy, how will they make an appointment?” The same day, RNAO released an Action Alert to sound the alarm on the urgent need for a clear plan, and we continue to encourage members and the public to put the question to the premier. All of RNAO’s recommendations regarding the path forward were outlined in our letter sent to Premier Ford and Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott on Feb. 10. Our health is at stake, and we need a successful vaccine plan so we can finally see the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

RNAO continued to speak about the urgent need for self-isolation pay. Many nurses in Ontario were not being paid to self-isolate after being in contact with a potential COVID-19 patient. Hospitals in Hamilton, Niagara, Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk counties though are now providing staff with temporary self-isolation pay. RNAO hopes that every organization in Ontario will follow suit. I told CBC News on Feb. 17 that “it was never right to put the burden of sick time or isolation time on the back of the nurses that are putting themselves on the line to care and to protect and save lives.” In a Feb. 25 interview with CHCH news in Hamilton, I told them “I’m glad that...the entire region has decided to reconsider the approach.”

After less than a month since the province-wide stay-at-home order commenced, the premier announced on Feb. 8 most regions in Ontario would return to the colour-coded response framework. RNAO published a media release on the same day calling the easing of restrictions premature for many regions of the province in the absence of measures to restrict travel between regions. With the presence and spread of new variant strains, our message to the government and public remained clear: “Now is not the time to soften it up. Now is the time to sit tight” (Canadian Press, Feb. 9). RNAO expressed particular concern about the impact on our already strained health-care system. I told CTV News on Feb. 9: “Let’s not gamble on overwhelming the health system even more… the health-care professionals, doctors and nurses are absolutely exhausted.” On Feb. 19 the government announced that Toronto, Peel and North Bay-Parry Sound would have their stay-at-home order extended to March 8. However, York Region was able to move into the ‘red’ zone, which I told that same day to the Toronto Star was entirely a political decision rather than a public health one. On Feb. 26, the government announced that Thunder Bay and Simcoe Muskoka will be moving back into lockdown because of rising case counts, partly because variants of the virus spread more quickly. On March 5, the government announced that the stay-at-home order in Toronto and Peel will end and they will move into the grey-lockdown level of the colour-coded framework and North Bay-Parry Sound will move into the red-control level.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, when nurses are often called heroes, nursing vacancies across Canada remain prevalent. But as I told CBC News’ Canada Tonight on Feb. 8, it’s not that there is a shortage of RNs but rather a shortage of hiring RNs. On the bright side, the pandemic is inspiring many – high school graduates and second-career seekers – to aspire to enter our profession. A new report by the Ontario Universities Application Centre shows that they have received a substantial increase in applications for nursing programs. We need to secure our health human resources by expanding nursing programs as well as hiring more registered nurses and nurse practitioners on a sustained basis. Let’s also remember we have 2,500 nurses ready and able to work right now in RNAO’s RNCareers.

We keep encouraging members to use your informed, credible voices. Burnout is pervasive among frontline providers and we are proud of our members speaking out in the media. RNAO member Birgit Umaigba told CBC News’ Metro Morning on Feb. 3 that the pandemic is taking its toll on her. “We’re constantly surrounded by death, trauma and grief,” she says. “You walk into the ICU not knowing what to expect.” But she says she continues to show up to work because: “If I don’t show up, who’s going to?” RN Sara Fung also voiced her concern for her family: “It’s very stressful, and we’re living with this constant fear of catching COVID-19 ourselves and passing it on to our loved ones.” RNAO is here for you, that’s why we encouraged nurses in Ontario to complete our survey on their work and wellbeing. The results of that survey and the next steps in RNAO addressing the concerns will be discussed at our next COVID-19 Webinar Series event this coming Monday -- March 8 -- Register now.

On Feb. 25, RNAO held its annual Queen’s Park Day. An extensive Feb. 26 article by Queen’s Park Briefing, mentioning RNAO in the headline, provided rich detail on the event. It quotes discussions with Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. During the closing remarks from Premier Ford, he referred to the value of nurses saying "I'm just very, very grateful, because it is the toughest job out there." The premier recounted an evening at the hospital with his late brother Rob who slipped and fell while getting out of the bed. When the discussion turned to health measures, I urged him to impose stricter regulations for reopening. “Lock it down, the sooner the better,” I told him. Even though this year’s event took place virtually, the invigorating energy from members was present all the same.

Much of the discussion in Queen’s Park Day focused on the need for more investment in nurse practitioners (NP) in Ontario, with the premier responding “by all means ... let's get a number on the table because we need you, we really do.” He mentioned commitments the government has made to hiring over 10,000 RNs and 5,000 RPNs. Queen’s Park Day also included the launch of RNAO’s NP Task Force’s new report, Vision for Tomorrow, which provides recommendations to expand and enhance the role of NPs in Ontario’s health system.

RNAO’s media outreach resulted in 269 media hits during February. We continue to take media calls to discuss ongoing issues and concerns. For more information, you can read our latest media interviews in our COVID-19 Press Room.