RNAO’s continuing media profile: The March report

I am pleased to share our media profile for March 2021, prepared in partnership with RNAO’s communication department. The most prominent issue has been, by far, the quickly escalating third wave of Covid-19 in Ontario, driven mainly by the loosening of public health measures in the face of a faster spreading B7.1.1 variant of COVID-19. However, before getting into that, here are other issues we faced in the media. 

This month – on March 11 – we marked one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On that day, 35 organizations responded to RNAO’s invitation and called on Ontarians to mark the anniversary by lighting a candle in memory of those we’ve lost this past year and to shine a light on for a brighter tomorrow. I told CTV News on March 11 that the first word that comes to mind to describe this past year for nurses is “exhausting,” the second is “inspiring” the third is “fearful” plus “hopeful.” On that same day, I also told Global News: “It’s time to look ahead [to vaccination]… there is light at the end of this long, long, long tunnel.” We experienced many tragedies this past year, and it is important for every person anywhere to take a moment to feel together in our pain and to reflect and look ahead with hope.

We remain laser-focused on the funding and staffing crisis in long-term care (LTC), and continue to call on the provincial and federal governments to implement long-needed standards for the sector. Ontario’s Ministry of LTC recently announced its Staffing Supply Accelerator Group to tackle the issue of staffing. I am glad to be a member of this group. I said to CP24 on March 18 that I’m looking to “remedy the decades of disaster we’ve had in LTC that came under a magnifying glass during COVID-19.” I will advocate for the staffing mix outlined in RNAO’s Nursing Home Basic Guarantee to ensure residents receive four worked hours of care by RNs, RPN, and PSWs. We also need one NP on each nursing home to help address the increasingly complex needs of residents, and one IPAC nurse on each home to bolster the sector’s surveillance and practices.  

The provincial government recently announced its plan to spend $933M to create more beds in LTC and to upgrade facilities. “It’s great that we are strengthening LTC. We need to equally strengthen home care so people actually have a choice to stay home and then you will likely need less space in LTC,” I told the Canadian Press on March 18.

On March 24, the provincial budget was announced. RNAO issued a media release expressing our disappointment for the lack of investments desperately need to help nurses fighting COVID-19 and to sustain the nursing workforce after the pandemic. The budget does nothing to tell my nursing colleagues help is on its way and it fails to deliver more hands-on care by RNs, NPs, RPNs and PSWs for Ontarians. As I told Global News on March 26, you cannot open 500 new ICU beds (as planned in new COVID field hospitals) and other types of beds in hospitals without RNs. Nurses have been poorly supported by the government during this pandemic and this budget doesn’t encourage them to stay in the profession. 

On March 31, RNAO published a media release about our work and wellbeing survey results. The primary finding of the survey -- which checked the pulse of RNs, NPs and nursing students -- is that the stress and strain of the last year has taken a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of nurses. A significant number are considering leaving the profession after the pandemic ends. I shared that same day on CBC’s Ontario Morning that the biggest issues for nurses were the length of the pandemic, lack of supports and being overworked. “The results are that many will leave the profession immediately after the pandemic...The only way we can see out of it is to immediately put in retention strategies.” Our survey showed that 13% of nurses aged 26 to 35 are considering leaving. I told the Toronto Star on March 31 that “losing so many nurses at an early stage in their career would have a profound and lasting effect on how our health system functions.”

RNAO continued to speak out on the vaccine rollout and how to make it faster and effective. On March 5 I told Global News Radio that rather than keep focusing on the supply – which will grow hugely starting in late March – let’s worry about the logistics. We should be ready with the nurses, pharmacists, doctors and other providers in the community to put needles on the arms. One of the targets should be vulnerable populations that face barriers accessing the public sites. For homebound persons, RNAO has been urging and writing letters to the Premier and Minister Elliott asking to enroll homecare nurses to bring the shots to homebound person’s homes. Homecare nurses do tens of thousands of visits every day, and each visit could vaccinate a vulnerable individual and their essential care partner. The nurses are eager to help and the agencies for which they work have the logistical know how – all they need is the supply of vaccines. Primary care providers – community health centres, family health clinics, solo doctors, and nurse practitioner-led clinics – should play a central role as well. They have the expertise and the setup to engage in vaccination of their clients.

The COVID-19 pandemic curve has been worrisome for weeks and in recent days has taken a terrifying turn for the worse. The third wave is being driven by variants that are far more transmissible and dangerous and are also affecting younger ages. We have seen an exponential increase in cases, increased hospitalizations, greater illness, all of which are threatening people’s lives. It’s also threatening hospital ICUs and the health system itself. Tragically, this is no surprise. RNAO was already warning about “the worrisome impact of the new variants and the potential larger spread of these” on February 8. On February 10 RNAO sent a letter to Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Health Christine Elliott on the vaccine rollout and on preempting a third wave. We wrote that “There is the distinct risk of an explosive rise in the number of cases and hospitalizations. The public is not prepared for the worrisome characteristics of some of these variants, which appear to challenge our assumptions about transmissibility (such as two‐metre distancing, 15 minutes of exposure, and use of regular cloth masks).” On February 20 we cautioned that “many Ontarians will unnecessarily die or suffer severe and prolonged illness because of a preventable third wave of COVID-19. And they will continue to see illness and death due to non-COVID reasons because they cannot get timely access to an overwhelmed health-care service.” In these communications RNAO urged the government to strengthen restrictions across the province. Instead, the government and the Ontario medical officer of health proceeded to relax measures and open-up regions. In RNAO’s view this has been failure by design. 

We continued to raise these concerns, with ever increasing alarm, over the ensuing days and weeks. I told CTV News on March 17 that the variants are taking over and we’re in a race to do two things: “mitigate the spread of variants and vaccinating super-fast to prevent people from dying.” The province needs to mandate vaccines be administered 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to slow the spread of COVID-19.  In late March the province announced plans to allow personal care services to reopen in grey-lockdown zones on April 12. I told the Canadian Press on March 26 that I understand the government wants to help small businesses but there’s a way to do so without reopening and threatening lives. “Give [small businesses] the funding so they can bridge for the next two or three months because that’s all we have left. If we don’t do that, it will be a disaster because we will be mourning more and more people who will die.” On March 28 on CBC News, I said: “ICUs are pretty full. The variants of concern are spreading at an increasing rate. What nurses are asking [for] is [to] contain the virus, do not relax the public health measures.”

Finally, on April 1, Premier Ford decided to engage belated and less-than-satisfactory measures. He announced a province-wide ‘shutdown’ that would see indoor and outdoor dining as well as personal care services (hair salons and barber shops) closed for 28 days. However, during this period, non-essential retail stores would still be allowed to operate at 25% capacity. RNAO released a media release on the same day saying that this doesn’t go far enough. The premier is once again not attending to the science and doing nothing to help workers stay home if they fall ill.  

RNAO remains committed to speaking out about this and other emerging issues in the media and using evidence to guide the discussion. Furthermore, RNAO is committed to stand on behalf of nurses, health professionals and the public who now are facing a catastrophic health situation.

RNAO’s media outreach for the month of March results in 152 hits. Rest assured, we will continue to advocate for a Just Recovery for All, and for keeping public health restrictions in place until case counts come down. For more information, please visit our Press Room in our COVID-19 Portal.