Roughly 15,000 healthcare workers and 500 paramedics must be hired this year alone to maintain current patient care and service levels at hospitals across the GTA, says a union representing frontline healthcare workers.

During a news conference on Tuesday afternoon outside Scarborough General Hospital’s emergency department members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) gathered to call on the province to address the severe staffing shortages plaguing Ontario hospitals and putting immense stress on those who work in them.

“Many (hospitals) have closed their ERs and ICUs and other services temporarily. This is not normal or acceptable,” said long-time Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) Dave Verch, the first vice-president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE.

He said across Ontario 46,000 hospital workers need to be immediately hired to ensure the level of patient care and service remain the same going forward.

“These numbers are based on existing vacancies, turnover rates, and to meet the pressures of population growth aging,” he said.

Verch said currently the hospital staff turnover rate in this province is almost at 15 per cent, which he said represents an “unsustainable loss of experienced healthcare workers” and is more than double pre-pandemic levels.

He also said that Premier Doug Ford’s assurances that this issue is being addressed in a timely manner “simply isn’t true.”

“This attrition weakens our health care system that has had the fewest staff to population than any province for decades,” Verch said.

“(CUPE) polling suggests that hospital’s workforce, which is exhausted and demoralized and without some significant changes, the exodus of staff will continue to accelerate. We went into this pandemic without adequate capacity and our hospital system is now struggling as staff leave and cannot be replaced.”

Verch said the province must have a comprehensive plan in place to “staff up our hospitals,” one that includes adequately paying workers so that the quality of care given to patients isn’t compromised.

He’s also calling for more mental health supports for hospital workers as well as a ban on agency nursing, which he said is “two to three times more expensive and often less flexible.”

“Using expensive agency staff while cutting nurses’ wages is just demoralizing,” Verch said, adding financial incentives must be put in place to discourage retirements and enhance hiring and retention.

Further, Verch said post-secondary spaces for healthcare disciplines must be significantly expanded, tuition waived, and additional financial incentives provided to study and practice in Ontario.

“Turning this crisis around is possible and a wellbeing of many Ontarians depends on it. We need to work together aggressively to solve this crisis,” he said.

Mike Merriman, unit chair of CUPE Local 416, which represents Toronto Paramedic Services, said medics in Toronto and across Ontario are also dealing with a “crisis” situation as on average one staff member from the city is resigning each week.

“Politicians and the managers of services will tell you that the situation, yes it is bad, but it's not dire, and that they're managing. Well, if rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is managing, I guess they're managing,” he said.

Merriman went on to say that the situation paramedics, and in turn patients, are facing is “extremely dire.”

“I've been on this job for 32 years and I have never ever seen things as bad as they are right now. I have never seen patients, calls waiting, lined up in queues for hours upon hours and hours. In 32 years, I have never seen elderly patients that slip and fall on the ice and fracture a hip lie on that ice for hours in agony. I have never seen that in 32 years.”

Merriman noted that politicians often point the finger at delays in offloading patients but he said that is long-standing challenge paramedics have previously been able to deal with.

“We've managed, why? Because the services were staffed appropriately. They had surge capacity. Over decades of mismanagement and underfunding by municipalities and governments this system has eroded so much,” he said, noting that the average volume of calls to paramedics has increased by almost five per cent annually.

“Paramedics can not manage to keep up with the calls anymore. They're burning out in droves. They're leaving,” Merriman said.

“We're averaging a resignation of once a week. They're leaving to go to other services where the pace may be not quite as bad.”

Lastly, Merriman said he’s proud of his members for “stepping up in the face of such adversity and what they’re dealing with.”

But, he said they need some relief.

Meanwhile, in a statement provided to CTV News, the Ministry of Health said Ontarians would “continue to have access to the care they need when they need it.”

“Our (Plan to Stay Open: Health System Stability and Recovery) will support the healthcare system to address the urgent pressures of today while preparing for a potential winter surge so our province and economy can stay open,” spokesperson Bill Campbell wrote in an email.

“Once fully implemented, the next phase of the Plan to Stay Open will add up to 6,000 more health care workers to Ontario’s health workforce, will free up over 2,500 hospital beds so that care is there for those who need it, and will expand models of care that provide better, more appropriate care to avoid unnecessary visits to emergency departments.”

The MOH rep went on to say that recently Minister of Health Syvia Jones wrote to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario asking them to go ahead with their proposal of adding a new group of “temporary” doctors to the College’s Registration Regulation.

Campbell said the Ministry “wants to know how many would-be nurses would benefit from these changes,” which would “support more nimble movement between provinces and territories.”

He also noted that they’re also interested in finding more ways to register internationally trained doctors, notably through the creation of a Practice Ready Assessment Program where doctors from other countries can receive a “fast track assessment” to determine whether they are ready to work as a physician in Ontario.

Further, the province said it is investing $42.5 million dollars over the next two years to “grow undergraduate and postgraduate medical education and training in Ontario.”

“These investments will help recruit future health care workers and support improved care for underserved areas of the province. Increasing the number of doctors, nurses and personal support workers in Ontario is a key element of the government’s Plan to Stay Open,” Campbell said.

“This requires recruitment and retention of nurses and personal support workers, and investing in the students of today who will become the skilled health care professionals of tomorrow. Expanding medical education will result in more doctors serving in Ontario and better access and quality of care for hard‐working families across the province.”