Simcoe Muskoka hospitals face persistent nursing shortages

Amid warnings of "an alarming exodus" from nurses, hospitals in Simcoe County and Muskoka are struggling to hire nurses at a rate faster than they're leaving.

While hospitals report vacancy levels similar to those in the pre-COVID-19 pandemic, shortages have forced some nurses to take on longer and extra shifts.

Barrie's Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) officials say they have 40 nursing positions open, compared with 50 to 60 before the pandemic.

At the high end of its typical range, Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital reported 66 vacancies on Thursday. Muskoka Algonquin Health Care has identified 26 open nursing positions.

Hospitals are also seeing varying degrees of increased retirements.

"We are up probably by about double. Some of that was to be expected, based on the age demographic of some of our nurses," says Jill Colin, chief nursing executive at Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital. "And there is definitely an impact as a result of the pandemic."

Colin explains that some of the added stress of the pandemic and having to treat sicker patients could be contributing to departures.

She also says retiring nurses could return as teachers and mentors for newer team members.

With long-time nurses hanging up their scrubs, Ontario hospitals are competing for seasoned, specialized employees.

"Areas like emergency department, ICU, OR nurses, the supply is really thin," explains Darrell Sewell, vice president of facilities and chief human resources officer at RVH.

"From time to time, we do get experienced people, but we also know that we're going to have to grow our own. We're going to have to give more junior nurses the opportunity to get that experience and to get their certification in specialized nursing," he adds.

Sewell and Colin say their respective hospitals have been successful in luring experienced nurses from the GTA who may be in search of a change or more green space.

Some doctors' and nurses' groups believe wages could play a role as well.

MAHC is using signing bonuses to help entice nurses north.

Unions, including Services Employees Union Healthcare (SEIU), want the provincial government to repeal Bill 124, which caps public sector wages at one percent a year.

CTV News spoke with Sharleen Stewart, SEIU President, between bargaining sessions with the Ontario Hospital Association and CUPE. SEIU represents registered practical nurses at RVH and Georgian Bay General Hospital in Midland.

"(Bill 124 needs to be repealed) so that being a worker at either one of these hospitals in the nursing profession and other professions is an attraction. Right now, obviously, it's not, and the province is suffering because of it," Stewart says.