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As nursing leader nears retirement, a lament for ignored pleas for N.S. nursing homes

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia nursing union leader nearing retirement says she's grown fatigued over the past two decades with ignored pleas for increased staffing to care for the province's elders.

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia nursing union leader nearing retirement says she's grown fatigued over the past two decades with ignored pleas for increased staffing to care for the province's elders.

In a statement Tuesday to a legislature committee, Janet Hazelton said it's become obvious the province needs legislation to require minimum staffing levels providing an average of 4.1 hours of care per resident.

The president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union says low minimum care levels left an increasingly frail population neglected, and existing staff simply weren't able to respond adequately during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I'm getting a little tired of repeating myself over and over and over again. Not for two years, not for four years, but for 25 years almost. I came in talking about this, and I don't want to retire talking about this," she said.   

While the province has fared well in keeping COVID-19 infection rates among the lowest in the country, the virus entered the largest non-profit facility in the region, Northwood, during the first wave, resulting in 53 deaths.

Hazelton, who represents 1,100 nurses working in the province's long-term care facilities, says staffing changes are needed before another pandemic arrives.

The registered nurse, who retires in six weeks, noted that an independent review of the Northwood deaths largely agreed with her call for a minimum of 4.1 hours of care a day, including an average of 1.3 hours of care by licensed nurses.

The union has been promoting the idea through a series of reports over the past two years. "It's about dignity, respect, proper care for the seniors in our facilities. They deserve it," Hazelton told the legislature's health committee.

Hazelton has said in prior presentations the current level of care is an average of about 3.45 hours per day.

Govind Rao, Atlantic research representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, delivered a similar message, saying the 5,700 members of his union working in long-term care need better pay and working conditions.

The top pay rate in 2020 for a continuing care assistant in Halifax is $18.20 per hour, two dollars less than what the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated recently as the living wage for the city, he said.

"Do we really need to ask why we can't attract workers to this sector?"

Dr. Kevin Orrell, deputy minister of the Health Department, said during his opening statement that he recognizes the system has staffing challenges and that the nursing homes are "aging quickly."

But he cited some of the province's recent accomplishments in upgrading the system in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have created new rapid response teams to support (long-term care) providers in the event of an outbreak," he said.

The province has opened new regional care units to care for people with the virus, started routine testing for nursing home staff and hired more cleaning staff, he said.

He detailed $26 million of special spending since the pandemic on nursing homes, ranging from the rapid response units to renovations to reduce the number of people sharing rooms.

However, when asked if the province has a specific timeline to provide all residents with private rooms, rather than sharing rooms with another person, Orrell didn't provide any specific dates. 

Susan Stevens, director of continuing care at the Nova Scotia Health Authority, noted that 1,600 people had been moved into continuing care during the pandemic, despite the challenges the virus presented.

About 1,500 people remain on a waiting list for placement at a care home, Orrell said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan 12, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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