Hundreds of nurses rallied on the steps of the B.C. legislature Tuesday over staffing shortages and difficult working conditions amid two public health emergencies in the province: the pandemic and opioid crisis.
The B.C. Nurses' Union is using National Nursing Week to highlight the conditions and the impact on their mental health.
Led by BCNU president Aman Grewal, the nurses carried a pink banner that said “Respect Nurses,” while others held signs saying “patient safety = more nurses” and “fix the nursing shortage” and “no nurses, no health care.”
“B.C. nurses don’t feel like celebrating this week,” said Grewal. “Instead, hundreds have travelled to Victoria from communities across the province with a sombre message that the health-care system is buckling under the pressure.
“Enough is enough. We need action now.”
On Monday night, the union hosted a “Vigil to Heal Heath Care” where nurses, first responders and family members reflected on the impact of the overdose crisis and pandemic on communities and the health-care system as a whole.
More than 3,200 people have died of COVID-19-related causes since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
“The act of holding a dying patient’s hand while they lay intubated and alone or balancing an iPad so family members can say their final good-byes is something that stays with you,” Grewal said.
She said nurses are facing an unmanageable number of patients and are burnt out, with 82 per cent of BCNU members surveyed last year saying their mental health has worsened over the pandemic.
At the same time, last year, 2,224 people died in B.C. of a suspected illicit drug overdose. Toxic drug overdoses were declared a public-health emergency in 2016.
The rally started at noon, shortly before a press conference at the legislature by B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on the vaccination status of professional health-care workers.
Henry said she empathized with the nurses, saying it’s been a “long road” for health-care workers amid two public health emergencies.
Nurses, along with other health professionals and health-care workers, have been through “an enormous amount,” said Dix — not only are patient volumes high, but so, too, is the number of workers off sick with COVID-19.
“Our nurses have been doing incredible work and that’s why I was with them at a vigil last night, why I’m in regular consultation with them, why on some of the proposals I mentioned we’re working with them,” he said.
Dix said since 2017, B.C. has seen the fastest increase in registered nurses of any province, a doubling of nurse practitioners, a large increase in licensed practical nurses and registered psychiatric nurses, and the addition of 602 training spaces for nurses.
Dix said he’s heard the message from nurses, not just Tuesday but during the height of the Delta variant, when nurses not only did their jobs but often took the place of family in both long-term care and acute care when visitation was restricted.
“Those are moments in all of these public health emergencies that no one involved will forget — no one involved will be unchanged,” said Dix. “What we can do now is to respond and continue to build together a better health-care system for the future.”