Municipal leaders in small Ontario communities are sounding the alarm over the temporary closures of hospital emergency rooms, saying action is needed to ensure local residents and visitors to those areas can get the care they need.
Hospitals have cited critical staff shortages for the closures and organizations representing doctors and nurses have noted that workers are burned out and leaving their roles after two years on the front lines of the pandemic.
In Perth, Ont., where the emergency room at the local hospital has been closed since July 2, the town’s mayor said he worries rural hospitals have become an “endangered species.”
Mayor John Fenik likened the health-care system to a quilt “slowly unravelling.”
“The threads are coming out of it. And if the ministry doesn’t do something now, today, and get together and sit down with people that are far smarter than I to figure this out, we’re going to have some real problems,” he said.
“I think rural hospitals are an endangered species.”
The local emergency room has been shut until further notice as the hospital contends with a COVID-19 outbreak among staff that has been magnified by a critical shortage of workers. Patients have been directed to a partner hospital in Smiths Falls, about 20 kilometres east.
Fenik said the ER closure has devastated the community, which skews elderly and attracts tourists and cottagers from nearby Ottawa during the summer months. The town, he said, is expecting thousands of visitors for this weekend’s Stewart Park Festival.
“This is kind of keeping me up at night because I don’t want anybody to be hurt and not get the care they need,” he said.
“A closure of an emergency ward is critical. It’s a critical piece of the hospital care system.”
In Mount Forest, Ont., the Louise Marshall Hospital announced Monday it would close its ER Saturday and Sunday night due to gaps in nursing coverage and a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our staff have been going above and beyond for greater than two years and we cannot ask them to do more,” Angela Stanley, the hospital’s president and CEO, wrote in a statement on the hospital website.
In Huron County, emergency rooms in Clinton, Ont., and Seaforth, Ont., were to shut their doors on Monday and Tuesday night.
Bernie Bailey, reeve of the Township of North Huron in Huron County, said the federal and provincial governments need to find ways to entice more people to rural Ontario to support the health-care system.
Otherwise, he fears the combination of a gruelling pandemic and chronic staffing shortages could prove disastrous for small towns.
“In 10 years, we could look back and say, ‘Wow, this destroyed rural Ontario’s health system,'” he said.
“Whether it’s a tourist or whether it’s a farmer, or whether it’s a factory worker … we need the ER there. We need to have them here.”
Glen McNeil, warden for Huron County, sought to reassure residents that when a hospital temporarily closes its ER, there is another nearby to accommodate patients.
But, he said, with no foreseeable end to staffing shortages and in order to support remaining workers, local hospitals are venturing into a “new norm.”
“There will be hospitals that will have emergency rooms open 24 hours a day, they just may not be as close as they’ve been in the past,” said McNeil, who serves as board chair for the Alexandra Marine and General Hospital.
“We must support our staff, preserve our staff, and we may do business differently.”
Health-care spending was expected to be a top agenda item as Canada’s premiers gather in Victoria this week for two days of meetings. The premiers are pushing the federal government to increase its share of health-care spending from 22 to 35 per cent.
The head of southwestern Ontario’s Perth County, where two hospital ERs temporarily closed this weekend due to staffing shortages, said money “is not the only answer.”
“I want to see a plan of where they’re going to put these people and where these people are going to come from,” said Jim Aitcheson, the county warden, referring to health-care workers. “Sooner or later, it’s going to have to be a topic of discussion. And I hope that’s sooner than later.”
The recent closures, while largely in smaller communities, have also spread to urban centres – the urgent care centre at Peel Memorial in Brampton, Ont., shut earlier than usual on Sunday before reopening Monday morning.
The union representing Ontario nurses has called for the government to expand fast-track programs that help registered practical nurses become registered nurses, as well as cut wait times for internationally trained nurses to obtain their licences.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health has said the province was working to bolster workforce capacity, including with lump-sum retention bonuses and funds to recruit nurses to target areas across the province.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2022.