Winnipeg’s nurse vacancy rate double what former health minister considered ‘normal’

The number of vacant nursing positions in Winnipeg’s health region is double what a previous health minister said was “normal” before the start of the pandemic.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority reported 1,283 empty positions — a vacancy rate of 16.7 per cent — in January, according to a breakdown the Manitoba NDP obtained through a freedom of information request.

The vacancy numbers have grown almost every month since 1,138 vacancies were reported in July 2020, the first month recorded in the data.

The overall staffing shortage is higher than the normal eight per cent nurse vacancy rate, which former health minister Cameron Friesen cited in 2019.

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara laid the blame Wednesday on a Progressive Conservative government falling short on health-care funding.

“It’s a failure on this government and it’s something that we know this minister, this minister’s office has been aware of for many, many months,” they told reporters.

1 in 5 positions vacant at ERs

Asagwara alleged the vacancy rate is disrupting care in emergency departments. At St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, 24 of 109 positions — or 22 per cent — were unoccupied.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the 20 per cent vacancy rate at Grace Hospital’s ER lends credence to a letter, which the party made public Tuesday, in which a woman wrote that her 93-year-old mother was subjected to “torture” as she waited in the hallway of the ER for five days.

“Every time that we see a condition that we don’t like in the health-care system, it’s because of the decisions that are being made at the political level,” Kinew said.

The current health minister, Heather Stefanson, said she has asked the WRHA to investigate the patient’s lengthy wait.

Most Winnipeg hospitals haven’t been close to a “normal” eight per cent nurse vacancy rate for awhile.

In early 2020, more than a quarter of nursing positions in St. Boniface’s ER were unfilled, which prompted staff to publicly demand help in an open letter.

A few months earlier, the emergency and urgent care departments in Winnipeg averaged a vacancy rate around 17 per cent. 

New figures show 16.7 per cent of nursing positions in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority were vacant, as of January. 2:07

Stefanson said the hardships in recruiting and retaining nurses have lasted for years and are seen across the country. In Manitoba, it was an issue before the Tories were ushered into power in 2016, she said.

“I certainly do recall back in the days of the previous NDP government, where dozens upon dozens of people were lining the hallways, they were lining our highways,” she said. “That is certainly not where we want to go back to.”

Stefanson said the government is in talks with Shared Health and nurses on ways to address the shortages.

“We know that there’s always been challenges there, but I think certainly the pandemic has created more challenges for sure,” she said.

Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson said the pandemic has magnified the need for more nurses. (John Einarson/CBC)

“It just means that we have more work to do and we are committed to making sure we do that work.”

In response, Asagwara said it is “already too late” for Stefanson to be taking action. 

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont spoke of another story of highway medicine at the Grace Hospital. He said an elderly man spent six days lying on a gurney in the hallway, before he was transported to Seven Oaks Hospital. He was transferred four days after he was diagnosed with bone cancer. 

“And all of this happened without staff ever telling anyone in his family or the person who’s responsible for his medical power of attorney — it’s an absolute breakdown,” Lamont told reporters.

He said the Progressive Conservatives and NDP should share responsibility for a health-care system in disarray, since the parties both served in government.

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