HALIFAX -- Before the pandemic, New Brunswick was short over 520 nurses in its hospital system.

Today, it's even worse.

"If it wasn't for overtime, we'd have no healthcare system," said New Brunswick Nurses Union president Paula Doucet.

Doucet says long-term disability claims are up this year and some of that is a direct result of the stress from the pandemic.

It leaves nurses who are left, working more overtime than ever.

At Horizon Health so far this year, registered nurses have worked 187,219 hours of overtime.

That's a 29 per cent increase since 2017.

At Vitalite Health, the 2019/2020 fiscal year saw nurses work 153,077 hours of overtime – an increase of 40 per cent.

Doucet says while hospitals emptied in preparation for the first wave in the spring, most are back to operating at 100 per cent or above capacity now.

And just this week, Horizon announced 80 of its staff are self-isolating after being exposed to the virus.

"Just as most recently in Zone 1, with Saint John Regional and the outbreak that they're facing there and the number of health care workers that were put on self-isolation, that leaves only so many left in the system to care for those that are there," said New Brunswick Nurses Union president Paul Doucet

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard says she's not surprised.

"I want to thank them for showing up and working the overtime that they do," Shephard said.

Contract negotiations between the province and the nurses union are ongoing.

The pandemic puts pressure on both sides.

"I've actually heard that some RNs are being denied their annual leave because of the shortage," Green Party Mla Megan Mitton."So we can really see the shortage is getting worse and there needs to be action taken."

Doucet says nurses are exhausted.

"They're exhausted mentally and they're exhausted physically from all of the extra things that they have been required to do during this pandemic," she said.

Shephard says she is planning a healthcare review in the New Year.

"I envision a healthcare system where medical professionals are as equally satisifed as the patients and clients they serve," she said.

Shephard admits that if nothing is done, the province could lose 40 per cent of its nursing capacity in five years.