"It really is a safety issue."

That is how the President of Manitoba Nurses Union is describing the situation on weekends at the Emergency Room in Steinbach.

According to Darlene Jackson, Bethesda Regional Health Centre's ER was operating below baseline on Friday and Saturday. The Manitoba Nurses Union states that safe staffing levels are six nurses there from 8 am to midnight and then five nurses overnight. However, Jackson notes there were two nurses on both Friday and Saturday.

"Which ultimately means that nurses are expected to do the same amount of work with less than half the staff that they normally have," explains Jackson. "Which also means patients are waiting longer, patients are not being triaged and are not being dealt with in the adequate amount of time."

Jackson says she thinks that ER has been operating below baseline on weekends for a few months already. However, this is really the first time the nurses have stepped up and said they can no longer do this, and that it is not safe. And, it is her opinion that this is much bigger than just a summer issue.

"We are in a critical nursing shortage and our health care system is floundering," says Jackson. "I feel like we're on the Titanic and it's sinking and we're basically shuffling deck chairs."

The Union President says she would hate to even suggest that Bethesda temporarily close its Emergency Room, noting that hospital serves a very large catchment area.

"They often work in a region where there are many closures or diversions already in the smaller ERs," adds Jackson. "So to close Bethesda would have a huge impact on that part of the southern region."

Instead, she says both the provincial government and Southern Health need to take action very quickly by exhausting every option for providing adequate staffing in that department. Jackson says they need to figure out how to bring in nurses.

"Although saying that, I also want to be careful because we have nurses who have been mandated for overtime for months, they have mandated on when they are at work and if they can reach them at home they are mandating them to come in," says Jackson. "So I want to be very careful there too because nurses are exhausted, they are exhausted."

Jackson says the last two and a half years have pushed nurses right to the edge. She wonders if agency staff can be used to fill the gaps or if nurses from other parts of the region can be called in to assist. 

And, Jackson says though the province has outlined long-term plans for adding 400 nursing seats to post-secondary institutions, that is not a remedy for today. Rather, she says something must be done to deal with nurses that are already here and figure out how to keep them in the system. 

"What can we do to keep those experienced nurses who have knowledge and wisdom to share with the new nurses coming in," questions Jackson. "We need to keep them, they need to support and mentor those new nurses in order to keep them in the system as well."

Further to that, Jackson says they need to look for ways to bring nurses out of retirement or those in private agencies back into the public health system.

We have reached out to Southern Health and are awaiting a statement on the Bethesda ER nursing situation.