Inside a Vernon, B.C. care centre’s struggle with a ‘critical’ nursing shortage – Okanagan

The manager of clinical operations at Gateby Care Center in Vernon, BC, didn’t mince words when she emailed other Interior Health employees last September asking for guidance on addressing the facility’s staffing shortage.

Iwona Sienko said the long-term care facility operated by Interior Health has “a critical nursing shortage.”

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Sienko said there was a 50 percent vacancy rate for registered nurses and a 44 percent vacancy rate for licensed practical nurses.

The email is part of a series of internal messages about Gateby’s staffing shortage that were sent to Global News in response to a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request.

They offer the public a rare glimpse into the depth of the long-term care staffing shortage and how officials are trying to address the challenge.

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Internationally trained nurses are helping to fill the shortage

However, important parts of Sienko’s September 12 email have been redacted or redacted.

“We lost several nurses to vaccination mandates that we never recovered from, and now…” Sienko said. The rest of the sentence was redacted in a section of the law that requires officials to withhold information that compromises privacy.

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A possible fix that Sienko wants to investigate, according to her email, has also been redacted.

The next day, Sienko’s emails show that she was “given the green light to explore the possibility of hiring agency nurses.”

Over the next week, however, the care facility faced a second challenge: a COVID outbreak.

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Sienko quickly applied for an outbreak-linked performance bonus to help staff staffing, and once asked if it was okay to apply even before an outbreak was officially declared.

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The stimulus payment request form said several residents on the third floor had tested positive for COVID within days.

“We often work with 50-70% staff,” it said in the application for 1.5 times the salary.

“Requests for staff transfers were unsuccessful due to regional staff shortages.”

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As part of this request for additional payment, the manager must confirm that he has “exhausted all normal retrieval procedures,” including attempting to recruit agency nurses, and “confirm that the standard of patient care is not being met.”

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Later that day, Gateby was approved for the performance award.

This is where the emails end as there was a significant lag time in creating the documentation.

Global News requested the recordings on September 23 but did not receive them until December 23.

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As of early October, Gateby had eight vacancies for licensed practical nurses and nine vacancies for nursing assistants, according to records.

Aman Grewal, President of the BC Nurses’ Union, said the type of labor shortage that hit Gateby in September was putting pressure on the remaining nurses.

“Our employees are the ones who have to take on the excessive workload and are overwhelmed when they aren’t even able to take a break to eat or have something to eat to keep them going throughout their shift,” said grwal.

Interior Health reports staffing improvements

The health agency said despite the “critical shortage of care” this fall, it still has the staff to keep residents safe and there have been staffing improvements since the fall.

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Julie Davenport, Interior Health’s senior care director for the North Okanagan, said the facility is now fully staffed with nursing assistants (including those with the nursing assistant job title).

Davenport said they were able to add nursing assistants through outside recruitment and education programs.

But the health department still reports six vacancies for licensed nurses. That’s two fewer positions than October, not because the facility has more LPNs (there are still 11), but because the health board wants to hire fewer positions.

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One of the three registered foster homes is now vacant.

Davenport said Gateby is filling in the gaps with staff transferred from other areas and casual workers.

In the longer term, she believes that partnering with educational institutions, which IH and Gateby are already doing, will make a real difference in the workforce.

“We offer on-site training, the great thing is that you get to know the people and the locations. What we find is that we have such great residents, and when you get to know them and have that connection, you’re more likely to stay where you did your internship,” Davenport said.

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Davenport said coordinated education programs are already having an impact on the staffing of nursing assistants and she believes this will help on the nursing side as well.

“Our challenge, of course – in the meantime – is to ensure we maintain a safe workforce and to find and redeploy as much as possible to ensure that,” she said.

Gateby challenges are not unique

Davenport and Grewal agree that the staffing challenges at Gateby are not unique to facility or even long-term care, but are part of a national or even international shortage of nurses.

In fact, a document about Pleasant Valley Manor in Armstrong, another long-term care facility operated by Interior Health, shows that it also faced serious staffing issues during a COVID-19 outbreak in September.

The form, asking for a performance award related to an outbreak at Pleasant Valley Manor, said it “utilized all staff disciplines to cover basic needs.”

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“We are struggling to isolate residents due to staff shortages. 40% of our current employees work double shifts and others do not receive meal breaks,” the form reads.

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When asked about these details of staff conditions at Pleasant Valley Manor, Davenport said long-term care residents with dementia and complex clients can make the ability to isolate a bit more complicated.

“They may not have the cognitive ability to appreciate or understand what it means to isolate, so we make sure we have the staff to support them so we can ensure their safety,” Davenport said.

Overall, the nurses’ union believes that more nurses need to be trained and there needs to be a greater focus on staff retention as the health care system at large continues to face a shortage of nurses.

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“You have to look at different models. They can’t rely on reallocation because where are they reallocating from if there aren’t enough nurses in the acute care or in the community either?” said Grewal.

Grewal said she was pleased with the recent announcement, which aims to help internationally trained nurses and ex-nurses take jobs in BC

“I just hope that nobody is discouraged from entering the profession. There are many opportunities. We just need to get it back to where it was with a proper secure staffing,” Grewal said.

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