A health centre in a remote Northern Manitoba community that was supposed to open Jan. 10remains closed because of staff shortages and one northern resident says he is now concerned because residents who live near the health centre will be deprived of basic and possibly lifesaving health care.
“Basic medical care is a basic human right and governments have duties to ensure these rights are ensured,” 59-year-old Leaf Rapids resident Dennis Anderson said. “And even during a national emergency like the pandemic basic medical care is a human right and they have deprived us of that.”
On Dec. 28, the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) announced that the Leaf Rapids Health Centre would be temporarily closed because of persistent staffing shortages and at the time it was announced that the centre would reopen on Jan. 10.
When the anticipated reopening day arrived, the NRHA issued a statement saying the health centre will remain closed “until further notice.”
Anderson, who lives in the community of about 580 residents that sits 750 kilometres north of Winnipeg, said he is worried that the ongoing closure could lead to residents in the area not getting medical attention when they need it and said he believes it is becoming “a matter of life and death.”
“The irony is that the clinic is closed and everything that could possibly be needed to save a life is beyond those doors, but the doors are locked and unmanned,” Anderson said.
“So it’s a very real chance that someone goes to that health centre not knowing it’s closed and rings that doorbell and no one will answer. Someone could die on those hospital steps and just inches away there is equipment that could save their life.
“We are sitting here with a medical centre that can provide all those services and yet we are provided with nothing.”
Frontline health-care worker shortages have been an ongoing issue across Manitoba recently because of the rapid spread of the omicron variant, as many workers in recent days and weeks have either contracted COVID-19 or been forced to isolate because of COVID symptoms.
“It’s just not acceptable, it is just a huge failure and as of now it does not seem like there are any solutions,” Anderson said. “It’s not the fault of the nurses or the doctors, this is failure of government and even before COVID these had been longstanding issues for a very long time.”
In a statement sent to the Winnipeg Sun Jan. 11, an NRHA spokesperson said that recent staffing shortages and health centre closures in the province and in the north have been due to COVID-19 cases and symptoms among health-care workers in the area and that they cannot yet say when the Leaf Rapids Health Centre might reopen.
“Firstly, let’s start with saying that no one likes to close a health centre, even temporarily,” the spokesperson said.
“We have been forced to take this decision as a result of staff falling ill, staff being excluded due to COVID-19 screening and our usual replacements not being available.
“To keep the health centre open, we do not have the necessary complement of staff to maintain safe operation at this time. Our goal remains to open as soon as we can safely do so. As for the date of reopening, that is not known at this time.”
The spokesperson also said that health-care staffing has been an ongoing challenge in Northern Manitoba and has now been compounded due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
“The NRHA continues to work tirelessly to ensure all our facilities and sites are adequately staffed,” the spokesperson said. “However, staff sick calls, staff exclusions and the inability to rely on agency staff make staffing a challenge.”
The NRHA said that while the Leaf Rapids Health centre is closed there will be no services provided and all clinical care or support will be provided in Lynn Lake, which is an approximately two-and-a-half-hour drive from Leaf Rapids, or Thompson, which is an approximately four-hour drive from the community.
The head of an organization that represents First Nations whose members rely on the Leaf Rapids Health Centre for medical care said Jan. 10 that the closure is “reprehensible.”
“I am extremely concerned to hear of the impact of the closure on Leaf Rapids citizens,” said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee in a press release. “I am worried about the well-being and safety of MKO citizens who depend on accessing services in Leaf Rapids. It is imperative that we find solutions on an urgent basis to avoid unnecessary complications and potentially the premature passing of Manitoba citizens due to a lack of health services.’”
Settee said MKO has not heard from the NRHA or the provincial government regarding the closure. He also says forcing people to seek medical care in other communities hours away is potentially a recipe for disaster as highway conditions in winter can be very poor and the closure means there is nowhere local for lLeaf Rapids residents to get COVID tests or vaccines.
“I urge the provincial and federal governments to make collaborative investments to stabilize and create long-term solutions for providing accessible health services in both Leaf Rapids and Gillam,” Settee said.
Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
-with files from Ian Graham