Nurses and public health infrastructure in Ontario have both been under pressure throughout the pandemic as hospitals grapple with high rates of early retirement and general burnout for many health care workers. The current Omicron variant wave has pushed daily case counts to an all time high — as of January 6, two hospitals in the GTA have moved to Code Orange due to staff shortages and an influx of patients. 

U of T’s nursing students have felt this pressure acutely. The Varsity interviewed the president of the Nursing Undergraduate Society, Sunny Baek, to discuss how U of T’s nursing students have been affected by the shortage. 

A problem before the pandemic 

Although Ontario’s nursing and health care shortages have been exacerbated by the pandemic, fissures existed in the system beforehand. According to a statement released by the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the province entered the pandemic with about 22,000 fewer registered nurses per capita compared to the rest of Canada, and the statement expresses wariness that this might worsen. In 2020, Ontario had the lowest nurse-per-capita ratio in Canada, with only 665 registered nurses for every 100,000 people. The national average is 814 nurses per 100,000.

Additionally, in March 2020, Canada had 1.95 acute care hospital beds per 1,000 people. Aside from Mexico, this is the lowest ratio of any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization with a membership of 37 countries that aims to find mutually supportive solutions to social and economic issues. 

Nursing students’ perspective 

U of T’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing grants a myriad of degrees for young health care professionals. Its Bachelor of Science in Nursing — a two-year bachelor’s program — trains students to become registered nurses immediately upon graduation.

In a conversation with The Varsity, Baek spoke to the stressful nature of training to be a nurse under the current circumstances. As the two-year program is a highly accelerated bachelor’s degree, she emphasized that every moment counts as students attempt to become nurses within such a short span of time.  

She added that, due to the nursing shortage, finding clinical instructors has been exceptionally challenging. However, she noted that the nursing students are extremely grateful for the help they have received from faculty, partner hospitals, and unit nurses.

Baek described the process of working in placements during the pandemic as having to constantly question whether you’re helping or hindering the work of the other nurses. 

The government of Ontario recently unveiled a plan to make internationally educated nurses able to practice in Ontario as a way to alleviate the existing burden on the health care system. Although virtually all hospital worker groups praise this as a step in the right direction, many like Baek see it as “a very slow move that should have happened way earlier.” 

Additionally, many people remain critical of Bill 124, a provincial law that limits Ontario public sector workers’ salaries from increasing by more than one per cent annually. Baek described the bill as “absolutely horrendous,” and stressed that the general public should be aware of its negative impact on nurses and other public sector workers.