Eastern Health says a shortage of anywhere from 40 to 60 registered nurses at long-term care facilities across St. John's is leaving some nurses to work 24-hour shifts with the possibility of just two or three days of annual leave this summer.
Judy O'Keefe, vice president for clinical services with Eastern Health, said the shortage has been brought on by a number of factors, such as a drop in recruitment numbers and the effects of COVID-19 on nursing resources.
"We haven't been seeing the numbers come into long-term care as a choice for employment as we would like to see," O'Keefe told CBC Radio's On The Go on Friday.
"We're also seeing quite a demand on nursing staff in particular over this past year to other service areas."
The shortages at long-term care facilities have often left nurses caring for many more patients than intended over the course of a shift, according to both O'Keefe and Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In an interview with CBC News on Tuesday, Coffey said the current workload means it's not uncommon to have one nurse taking care of between 80 and 100 people over the course of a day, as opposed to the ideal ratio of one nurse caring for 30 patients.
"[Coffey] would be accurate," O'Keefe said. "We've been working very closely with the nurses' union and sharing this information trying to address the problem."
"It's not where we want to be, but at this point, we've put in other safeguards. We are redeploying nurses, we're also looking at non-nursing duties that people would be involved in. We've added other roles into the organization to ensure that we're able to support the RNs."
LISTEN | Judy O'Keefe speaks about staffing concerns in long-term care with the CBC's Ted Blades:
According to O'Keefe, part of those supports come in the form of adapting more breaks into shifts lasting longer than 12 hours, along with bringing in more supports to allow nurses to take more rest or take on fewer tasks.
However, she said, there are still instances where nurses can work shifts of up to 24 hours.
"Right now, we're aware that nurses are tired. We're trying to provide them some relief to enable them to come to work healthy and well-rested," she said.
"But we are concerned about our nursing staff, and we're doing everything that we can to try and support them."
CBC News also made repeated requests to David Diamond, CEO of Eastern Health, and Health Minister John Haggie for comment, but both were unavailable for interviews.
Nurses annual leave days will drop, O'Keefe
On top of working shifts of up to 24 hours, O'Keefe said Eastern Health is also working to address concerns of little to no annual leave days for nurses in long-term care.
When asked about a claim made by Coffey that workers have been told they will likely receive only two to three days of annual leave this summer, O'Keefe confirmed they're working to change that.
"That is certainly the truth, in that we have nurses that are not going to get annual leave as much as other areas and other years," she said. "We're still working on trying to enable those nurses, or at least the majority of nurses, to have some break during that summer period."
"They've been working very hard, so we're still working on that."
O'Keefe said there is some concern that staffing issues could affect the number of potential recruits who want to work in the province, but reaffirmed Eastern Health and the province's other authorities are working to address those concerns.
"When we have our normal levels of nursing staff, it's a wonderful place to use your full scope of competencies … to obtain leadership skills," she said.
"Unfortunately, at the present time, we are having some difficulty with recruitment and we're hoping to resolve that very soon."