Nurses working ‘off-service’ while patients moved to make room

By Catherine Griwkowsky December 11, 2020

As Covid cases push the health-care system beyond its capacity, the province is working at a rapid clip to free up ICU beds.

But the ramped-up capacity is coming at a cost to health-care workers, who are finding themselves increasingly overworked.

Nurses and other health-care providers are being asked to do tasks beyond their area of expertise. Patients are being relocated. Other times, nurses are reassigned.

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), told AB Today her members are approaching the level of “battlefield” nursing, where only the minimal amount of care can be provided.

“It’s like every day before [nurses] go through the doors they know they’re going into a blazing building,” Smith said in an interview.

At the Royal Alexandra hospital in Edmonton, nurses who are typically staffed at a one-to-one patient ratio are preparing for scenarios where they are responsible for up to four, eight or 16 patients each.

While some health-care workers are being redeployed to ICUs to care for Covid patients, in the other cases, it’s the patients who are being moved.

Geriatric psychiatric patients at Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital are being relocated to Covenant Health’s Villa Caritas, according to an AHS document obtained by AB Today.

Beginning Monday, the geriatric psych unit at Glenrose is being converted into 22 Covid beds; the facility’s geriatric psychiatric nurses have been asked to stay to provide post-acute care.

The UNA recently issued guidelines for nurses being redeployed to these “off-service” duties that involve unfamiliar work.

Government admits health-care staff are stretched
Government officials have recognized there is not enough health-care personnel to properly staff the expansion of Covid beds.

At a media availability last Friday, AHS CEO and president Dr. Verna Yiu said the province is calling on health-care workers with previous ICU experience to step in to expand capacity.

Earlier this week, Health Minister Tyler Shandro acknowledged extra beds don’t automatically come with extra personnel and that health-care staff numbers are further stretched by isolation and sickness.

He said the ICUs at Covenant Health-operated hospitals in Edmonton — the Grey Nuns and Misericordia — are under the greatest strain.

“This is incredibly difficult for our front-line workers, for those in our ICUs, those working in the surgical units and the medical units,” Shandro told reporters Wednesday.

But Smith said the staffing shortage has been made worse by the government cutting jobs through attrition.

A contract clause preventing any vacant positions from remaining unfilled expired in March, and labour negotiations between AHS and the UNA in November yielded no assurances they would be filled, per the UNA president. The employer has stated its goal is cutting 250 positions, which Smith said has led to a phenomenon of “disappearing” nurses, leaving remaining nurses to do more with less.

The province is currently aiming to increase the number of ICU beds from 173 to 425.