‘This has shaken me’: Perth hospital closure shakes community, calls for provincial response

The Perth hospital emergency department closed on Thursday after an outbreak of COVID-19 among an already understaffed nursing staff.

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Five days after a COVID outbreak shut down its emergency department, frustration was mounting in Perth on Monday over the Ontario government’s lack of response to the growing hospital crisis.

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Perth Mayor John Fenik said he was disappointed that provincial officials had not publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the situation in hospitals in Perth and elsewhere.

The closure of the emergency department, during what is normally its busiest season, has “unsettled” residents of the city whose population increases in the summer, Fenik said.

“This has shaken me as the mayor of a small community.”

The Perth hospital emergency department closed on Thursday after an outbreak of COVID-19 among an already understaffed nursing staff. People were redirected to Smiths Falls, about 25 kilometers away, where the emergency department is open 24 hours.

Michael Cohen, president and CEO of Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital, which has campuses in both communities, said the work plan is to reopen the emergency department between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. starting Thursday. . But he acknowledged that the rising number of COVID cases among staff in recent days could force the hospital to reconsider the timing.

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Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, hospital officials had warned they were struggling with critical staffing issues that could make it difficult for the emergency department to run 24/7 this summer.

On Monday, Cohen said other hospitals in the province are in similar situations.

“I’ve had quite a few colleagues come up and say we’re not alone.”

Newly appointed Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones has made no public statement about the worsening staffing crisis that has shuttered some hospital emergency departments and urgent care clinics in Ontario in recent days. No plans have been announced to mitigate the situation.

Fenik said he has contacted Municipal Affairs Minister Steven Clark, who represents nearby Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, but has not heard back.

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“We heard nothing, crickets, from the health minister,” said Perth emergency physician Dr. Alan Drummond, who has worked at the hospital for 40 years and has long warned that the overcrowded system was not sustainable without more support.

Drummond, who co-chairs the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians’ public affairs committee, said the province appears to have left the problem in the hands of hospitals.

“There is no provincial address.”

Drummond said closing the emergency department, which receives 28,000 visits a year, has devastated the community.

“They can’t believe this is happening and wonder who to blame. And there’s a lot of blame to go around.”

In response to a question on Monday, the Health Ministry issued a statement saying hospitals must have a plan to mitigate risk if they are forced to close their emergency departments.

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“Although various systems are in place to avoid closures, sometimes hospitals must make the difficult decision to temporarily close their emergency departments so that operations can continue in the rest of the hospital,” ministry spokesman Bill Campbell said.

The ministry advised hospitals to communicate about reduced service, a number to call for telehealth advice, available options for care, including virtual options, and where 911 callers will be taken by ambulances.

He also said hospitals must: have staff to greet patients who arrive unaware of the closure, who can provide first aid and call 911, if necessary; a process to cover hospitalized patients who need medical care and a staff ambulance on standby.

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The province has two programs to help emergency departments avoid staff-related shutdowns, but only when the problem is a doctor shortage. There are no similar programs for the nursing shortage, which is the key problem facing hospitals now.

The province also noted that it has invested money in training more nurses and encouraging nurses to stay.

Fenik, however, said the provincial government has to get innovative to urgently increase the shrinking health care workforce. Without that, he believes, small and medium-sized hospitals across the province are at risk.

“I think, in general, small and medium hospitals are falling very short. I think we’re all at risk unless we find a creative way to get people back into the health care system,” Fenik said.

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Fenik said he fears the province will increasingly centralize hospital services in response to the staffing crisis, which would be disastrous for small communities.

“If we lose this hospital, we lose the heart and soul of this community.”

He said the provincial government should be “preaching on top of a hill” that it will find a way to prevent that from happening.

However, Cohen said he did not fear for the future of the smaller hospitals, because the larger hospitals “can’t be the backup. It doesn’t work that way.

Cohen said the hospital has received “great support” from the government during the pandemic in the form of extra beds, staff and personal protective equipment, among other things, to help ease the pressure.

“What we have is an industry-wide health human resources crisis. This is not just a local problem.”

Drummond, meanwhile, said he just hopes the hospital survives without serious consequences.

“I’m just holding my breath and crossing my fingers and hoping we can get through this without a disaster.”

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