Nurse Suzette MacLeod administers the COVID-19 vaccine to elder Patsy Paul-Martin of Millbrook First Nation at the Feb. 24 vaccination clinic. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

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When Mary Ellen Gurnham retired in May 2019, she was a senior administrator with Nova Scotia Health responsible for education and practice standards for nurses and other healthcare professionals. She was also a Registered Nurse (RN) with 44 years experience. 

Early in February, when NS Health advertised it was hiring nurses for casual or full-time work to help staff vaccination clinics and COVID testing sites, she answered the call. 

“I thought I could contribute and I could see this tsunami coming at us,” said Gurnham. Knowing something of what it would take to leverage such a mass production across the province, I called and talked to the director of Recruitment for Central Zone and I called the Nova Scotia College of Nursing to ask about the process for getting re-licensed.”

Gurnham is just one of 508 retired or inactive nurses who have stepped up to the plate in the past year to help with the massive Public Health effort to swab noses at COVID testing centres, make contact tracing calls, and jab as many as 200 arms a day at vaccination clinics around the province. 

Many of these nurses have been out of the workforce six to 10 years and wouldn’t be there without a re-licensing program launched by the College of Nursing — one of the first, if not the first, in the country.

“From mid January 2021 until now, we have added 322 nurses by issuing conditional or restricted licences,” says Sue Smith, the registrar and CEO for the College of Nursing, which regulates the nursing profession. “This is unprecedented across the country. The licence is good for four months, it is free of charge to the nurse applicant, and it can also be extended by another four months.” 

Nurses who have been out of practice more than five years can work in the mass immunization effort but aren’t eligible to care for patients in other settings. 

Last March, when the first wave of the pandemic arrived and it looked as if more nurses would be needed, the College worked with the Department of Health and NS Health to issue temporary licenses to nurses who had been retired less than five years.

“Last May it was about making some additional nurses available,” recalls Smith. “In the past we had issued short-term conditional licences to graduates from nursing schools who had been waiting to pass their RN exams. But we had never had rapid re-licensure for retirees.” 

Staffing crunch

The rapid re-licensing program has been a godsend for NS Health, which has seen its nursing ranks cannibalized by the pressures to test and vaccinate nearly a million Nova Scotians. 

Last summer NS Health advertised for 100 RNs to assist with COVID testing and contact tracing. It was successful in recruiting but all the additional Public Health positions were filled by nurses who had been previously working other jobs at hospitals or nursing homes. 

In fact — even with the rapid re-licensing program designed “to avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as Sue Smith put it — there are currently over 1,000 vacant positions for Registered Nurses advertised with NS Health across the province.

“We are actively recruiting 196 full-time Licensed Practical Nurses and 806 full-time Registered Nurses,” says Brendan Elliott, senior communications advisor with Nova Scotia Health. “These numbers are higher than typical levels mainly due to additional internal movement resulting from our response to COVID-19.”

These vacancies do not include postings by the IWK Children and Women’s Health Centre, nor the dozens of long-term care facilities across the province looking for nurses. 

Yes, like other provinces, Nova Scotia has a chronic nursing shortage despite growing its workforce — mostly in the area of licensed practical nurses — by a total of 2% a year for the last decade. A senior planner with the Health Department says COVID-19 has intensified the staffing challenge but there is no need to panic.

“Right now we are in a pandemic so what employers are doing is building a surge capacity,” says Cindy Cruickshank, the director of Health Workforce Policies at the Department of Health. “They are building and recruiting as many nurses and others as they can get to help with their response to COVID-19. Just because you see these postings doesn’t mean there is a problem or there aren’t people in the system to fill them. NS Health could probably fill 500 of those positions in two to three weeks with people moving around internally. Our biggest concern and focus is helping communities outside the city and the hard-to-recruit specialized nurses for the operating room, mental health and addictions, and long-term care.”

There are certainly hundreds of jobs available for these hard-to-recruit specialties, just check CareerBeacon or Indeed.com. The province currently has about 15,000 licensed nurses and graduates 471 new ones each year to replenish those who are retiring. About three-quarters of new graduates now remain in the province.

Hopefully, the staffing crunch will start to ease once all Nova Scotians are vaccinated and summer vacations are over. Mary Ellen Gurnham, who initially inquired to see if she might help inoculate people against COVID-19, now finds herself working full-time managing a vaccination clinic opening soon in Dartmouth. Gurnham says, in her case, it took only 24 hours for the College of Nursing to issue her a conditional licence. “The process was easy,” she says. “The province even covered my liability insurance.”

Her experience is in sharp contrast to a complaint voiced in this CBC Nova Scotia story by another nurse who is on sabbatical in Nova Scotia while away from her job as a director of a School of Nursing.

Paula Forgeron balked at the idea she might need up to 12 hours of retraining to give someone a needle. She suggested the vaccination rollout in this province is being hampered by overly bureaucratic requirements on the part of the College of Nursing. 

CBC quotes Noella Whelan, the manager of vaccination clinics for NS Health, who says refresher training for “immunizers” ranges anywhere from five hours up to 12 hours depending on how long the nurse has been away from active duty. 

While no system is beyond criticism, can you imagine what staffing would be like without having managed to recruit 500+ nurses? And the doctors, physiotherapists, and dietary people who are pulling extra shifts working in the COVID testing centres and vaccination clinics? So far, the actual testing and vaccination experience on the ground has gone smoothly and appears poised to ramp up to handle an increase in numbers once more vaccine arrives.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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