Nurses rally outside Merritt hospital over staffing, safety issues

Members of the BC Nurses’ Union rallied outside the Nicola Valley Hospital in Merritt Wednesday to draw attention to issues they say are plaguing the facility.

The protest came after months of concerns about the health-care situation in the Interior community, from ER closures due to staffing, to safety at the hospital itself.

Adriane Gear, president of the union, says there’s a 54 per cent vacancy rate for registered nurses at Nicola Valley Hospital and Health Centre.

“That’s quite a burden to carry … knowing that maybe if you’re sick or if you take your vacation or something like that that the ER might have to close if you’re not there,” she explained.

“The other part of it is, you go to work and then you’re worried because you might be the only nurse that is emergency-room prepared to be working in that department.”

Gear says the ER sees 50 to 60 patients a day, a significant number for a facility of that size.

“And the fact that the next hospital is not until Kamloops, that’s quite concerning. Nurses, they feel a lot of pressure, but they’re also community members and they care about the people that they serve, and they want to make sure that there’s quality health care and access to health care, not only for the community but for themselves and their families,” she said.

The ER in Merritt has closed dozens of times in the last two years because of physician shortages as well.

Merritt’s mayor has threatened to withhold provincial taxes over the issue, saying his community isn’t getting its money’s worth.

When it comes to safety concerns at Nicola Valley Hospital, Gear says there’s a common feeling of frustration among members about the situation they’ve found themselves in.

“In meeting with the members, in terms of retaining nurses, they have some concerns for their safety and they’re feeling pretty frustrated that, despite having meetings with Interior Health and requesting security at the site, they haven’t received it,” Gear said.

“We’re talking about the staffing challenges but also what’s contributing to them and nurses, when they don’t feel safe, when they don’t feel respected, then they’re not inclined to stay working in a facility.”

Relational security officers

In 2022, the province announced a new safety model in hospitals, committing to hiring hundreds of relational security officers by the fall of 2023 to ensure “safer work environments.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix told CityNews Tuesday that the province had “recently hired 320 new relational security officers at 26 sites.”

“All protection-services personnel receive training in workplace violence prevention, mental health and to de-escalate situations in a safe and respectful way. This model was developed in response to concerns we heard from members of the BC Nurses’ Union, Hospital Employee’s Union and the Health Sciences Association, a model which the Opposition has indicated they are opposed to,” Dix added.

Gear says the changes to the security model are positive, adding the relational security officers are well trained.

“It’s new and, certainly, there’s always growing pains. But that doesn’t mean that every facility, that every hospital in this province has security. The Nicola Valley Hospital is one of them. There is no provision for security officers whatsoever. So nurses are left not only work short staffed and not having enough of them — they also, at times, are working in a situation where they feel unsafe,” she told CityNews, adding many of the nurses rely on the RCMP to help them.

“They report a very good relationship with the RCMP and feel very supported by them and I know that … their detachment is in close proximity to the hospital. However, particularly on a night shift, there’s a very limited number of officers on and I understand the geography that they cover. A response time could be like an hour to get back to the hospital.”

Gear says the nurses are doing the best they can, but have reached their limit.

The BC Nurses’ Union president points out small communities around B.C. are facing similar challenges.

“I think in smaller communities, it definitely has, I would say, a much larger impact when you can’t access health care locally and, really, your only option is to drive a considerable amount of distance. Maybe on a lovely day like today that’s not as much of a hardship, but when you consider weather factors and things like that, it is very concerning,” Gear said.

-With files from Robyn Crawford