Internationally-trained nurses are entering the battle against COVID-19. But is it too little, too late?

·4 min read
Dannette Porcioncula, 30, is originally from the Philippines, where she worked as an ICU nurse for five years. Since immigrating to Canada in 2019, she's got her licence to work as a nurse in Ontario, but is still waiting for immigration papers that will allow her to work in health care.  (Dannette Porcioncula/Twitter - image credit)
Dannette Porcioncula, 30, is originally from the Philippines, where she worked as an ICU nurse for five years. Since immigrating to Canada in 2019, she's got her licence to work as a nurse in Ontario, but is still waiting for immigration papers that will allow her to work in health care. (Dannette Porcioncula/Twitter - image credit)

Many health-care workers breathed a sigh of relief when the Ontario government announced internationally-trained nurses will be deployed in hospitals across the province, but advocates warn it won't be enough to make up for all the nurses who've left.

They say the move, which comes almost two years into the pandemic, is coming too late to adequately address a nursing shortage that made itself felt long before COVID-19.

"This is something that the government has known for at least 15 years — in documents after documents, spoken with premier after premier and minister after minister," said Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), on CBC's Metro Morning.

According to a November brief from the RNAO, Ontario entered the COVID-19 pandemic nearly 22,000 registered nurses short. The brief says the province trails the rest of the country in the number of nurses per-capita.

"It's a drop in the bucket, as simple as that," Grinspun said.

Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario
Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario

The 1,200 nurses who registered for the deployment program, the Supervised Practice Experience Partnership (SPEP), do not have a certificate of registration with the College of Nurses Ontario, but can use the work experience they get in the province's hospitals to complete their evidence of practice and language proficiency registration requirements.

Karla Ducusin, a nurse from the Philippines, was thrilled to hear some of her internationally educated colleagues will be able to start practising soon. But as a newcomer who doesn't have an open work permit or permanent residency, she realized she would be left out of the new directive, after waiting the past year for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to process her application.

"I feel like my career [and] my life is in the hands of IRCC and I am just waiting for updates."

Seeing how badly Ontario hospitals need more staff has Ducusin feeling even more frustrated.

"I have friends in hospitals and they are exhausted. They're burnt out. Some of them feel like quitting because they have been working 16 hours [a day] and that saddens me because I know that we could have helped."

Dannette Porcioncula is also licensed to be a nurse in Ontario but is on a closed work permit and can't be employed in health care. She currently works as a caregiver after months of sleepless nights getting her nursing licence to help with the pandemic.

"I was working full time, and [also] doing my applications [for] permanent residency, open work permits, [and] work permit extensions, just to have a valid status here because I haven't heard anything. At the same time, I went through the lengthy and costly process of obtaining my licence."

Ontario Nurses' Association
Ontario Nurses' Association

The IRCC says it has made applications from workers in essential occupations like health care a priority since the beginning of the pandemic. But the worldwide battle against the novel coronavirus has slowed the process down, the federal ministry has told CBC News.

"Ongoing international travel restrictions, border restrictions, limited operational capacity overseas and the inability on the part of clients to obtain documentation due to the effects of COVID-19 have created barriers," IRCC spokesperson Sabrina Williams wrote in an email.

"This hinders IRCC's ability to finalize applications, creating delays that are outside IRCC's control."

Retaining nurses a challenge

Grinspun says with another 15,000 foreign-educated nurses waiting to be processed by the College of Nurses and at least 300 others in situations like Ducusin's, it means longer wait times and gaps in care for patients.

Because these nurses still need to be monitored and trained, Angela Preocanin, the first vice-president of the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), says it'll make he process even more difficult.

"It's a mixed blessing," said Preocanin. "These RNs, our members, already have such a tremendous workload...It's really, really a tough thing."

In the long-term, the Ontario Ministry of Health says it plans to add 6,000 more health-care workers before the end of March, using a variety of ways to help attract and retain nurses, such as financial incentives, tuition supports and training programs, spokesperson Christian Hasse said in an email to CBC News.

But Preocanin says these supports won't have as big of an impact as repealing Bill 124, which caps salary increases at one per cent a year for public sector workers, including nurses and teachers, in Ontario.

"Members are going home crying, not sleeping, feeling so burnt out … The unimaginable stress and trauma from what they witnessed, and what they're going through, has just been devastating," said Preocanin.

"We need the government to look at improving their working conditions, improving their incentives to keep nurses to work together longer," she added.

"We need to keep our senior nurses here as mentors to our young nurses to develop that expertise."

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