One of two Northern Manitoba health care facilities forced to temporarily close their doors in the week after Christmas due to staff shortages is scheduled to reopen Jan. 5, the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) says.
Clinical services at the Gillam Hospital, including the emergency department and the inpatient unit, will resume beginning at 4 p.m. Wednesday. These services had been suspended Dec. 28, along with the primary care clinic, which resumed operations on Dec. 31 and remains open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Prenatal, postnatal and immunization home visits and other public health activities continued as scheduled during the shutdown as did mental health home visits.
“No one wants to close a health centre, even for a few days,” said the NRHA. “We understand the apprehension some community members felt and that’s why our goal was to implement our plan to meet the health needs of citizens served by the Gillam Hospital during this extraordinary time.”
The NRHA says the staffing situation in Gillam remains precarious and that staff calling in sick or being turned away from work due to COVID-19 screening could jeopardize the hospital remaining open, though every effort is being made to maintain health services.
“The leadership team in the Northern Health Region has been working tirelessly to re-establish services at Gillam Hospital,” an NRHA spokesperson said Jan. 4.
The Leaf Rapids Health Centre was also forced to close temporarily due to a lack of staff and is not expected to reopen until Jan. 10.
Seven of 13 registered nurse positions with the NRHA in Gillam were vacant as of Nov. 1, as were two of three RN positions in Leaf Rapids.
A Facebook post by the MNU on Nov. 26 said that management was making urgent requests for nurses to cover day and night shits in northern communities such as Snow Lake, Gillam and Lynn Lake, the last of which had three of four LPN and four of five RN positions empty at the beginning of the month.
“This is how short northern communities are,” said the MNU post. “Without services, our people are left in a vulnerable situation with NO access to healthcare services if nurses are not able to cover these shifts. If nurses do step up to cover these shifts, it in turn leaves other areas throughout the region short. It's a no-win situation. SOS...we are drowning.”
With the news of the late December closures, one NDP Member of Parliament asked the federal government to step in and work with the province to offer assistance in communities where there are health care staff shortages, and where health care facilities were closing their doors.
On Dec. 29 Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton sent a letter to federal Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu asking that the feds now step in.
“I am calling on Indigenous Services Canada to immediately work with the province of Manitoba and take whatever measures necessary, including engaging the Canadian Armed Forces to provide emergency medical services in Gillam and Leaf Rapids at this time,” Ashton said in the letter.
Ashton called the closures of the facilities “shocking” as COVID-19 cases spike in the province, and because of the amount of people in those communities and in the surrounding areas that rely on those facilities.
“This is a shocking decision on the part of our province given the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in Manitoba at this time,” she said. “Gillam and Leaf Rapids provide medical services to people from neighbouring communities, including many First Nations and Métis people. The nearest hospital in Thompson is far away, a drive of over three hours.”
“All options must be considered including bringing in medical personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces. Our region needs help now.”
Doctors Manitoba, a not-for-profit organization that represents thousands of physicians in the province, said Dec. 29 that the issues with health care staff shortages have become particularly problematic lately in the province and not just in the north.
“Just today, we have had reports from physicians about critical staffing shortages and service disruption in hospitals throughout rural Manitoba, including in Gillam, Boissevain, Killarney, Deloraine, The Pas, Dauphin, Ste. Rose, Selkirk and hospitals throughout the Interlake region,” Doctors Manitoba communications director Keir Johnson said.
“On one hand we are seeing health-care systems across the country struggling to keep up with Omicron, but what we are seeing in Manitoba is a system that is highly, highly stressed because of the staffing situations in hospitals.”
During a Dec. 29 press conference, Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin was asked about the situation in health care facilities in the north, and why it has become so dire that some facilities are being forced to close.
“We have increasing demands on the health care system for various reasons, but most notably because of Omicron,” Roussin said. “And then what we know is just as we've seen an increased number of cases, well part of those increased cases include health care workers and so that puts extra strain on the staffing.
“So that challenge is why we've put in more measures and why we're asking Manitobans to do what they can to reduce their contacts. That's why we've pleaded with Manitobans to get vaccinated as soon as they become eligible for another dose.”
- with files from Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun