TORONTO — Several Ontario hospitals were reducing service in certain areas over the long weekend due to staff shortages as an Ontario nurses union called on the province to tackle what it called an alarming situation.
Emergency departments were to be closed at the Wingham and District Hospital from Saturday evening until early Sunday and at the Listowel Memorial Hospital for much of the day Sunday. In Huron County, the Seaforth Community Hospital said it would temporarily close its ER overnight because it was running short-staffed.
In Bowmanville, Ont., the local hospital was temporarily closing its critical care unit due a staffing crunch. Lakeridge Health, which runs the site and four other hospitals in Durham Region, said staff from its Bowmanville facility would be consolidated at critical care sites at its Ajax Pickering and Oshawa hospitals.
In Orangeville, Ont., the Headwaters Health Care Centre said it was redirecting obstetrical services from Thursday until Monday due to a lack of pediatrician coverage. It said there were protocols in place to support patients if they come to the hospital in labour.
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The Ontario Nurses’ Association said it had heard from members about staffing shortages affecting more than a dozen hospitals in a variety of ways ahead of the long weekend.
“They’re either closures, reduction of beds, that they are redirecting patients, things like that,” association president Cathryn Hoy said in an interview on Friday.
Hoy said her union was “alarmed” about the impact a shortage of nurses is having on patient care in Ontario, and called on the government to meet with health-care unions to discuss solutions.
“We cannot wait any longer to resolve this crisis that is harming Ontarians and their access to health care,” Hoy said.
Hospitals across Ontario have grappled with staffing-related strain in recent weeks, with some having to temporarily close emergency rooms while others have had to rely on redeployed staff and students to cover shifts.
As examples of solutions to the crisis, Hoy suggested ensuring internationally trained nurses are licensed more quickly to work in the province and fast-tracking a program to help registered practical nurses become registered nurses.
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Nurses are also looking for more guaranteed access to personal protective equipment, she added, as exhausted workers face continued COVID-19 risk during a seventh wave of infections with few public health measures in place to mitigate spread.
There must also be incentives to bring back retired nurses who will be needed to train new graduates and nurses trained outside Ontario, Hoy said. She suggested repealing legislation that caps wage increases at one per cent annually to attract workers to the field.
The government said hospitals are expected to have plans in place to mitigate risk to patient care when departments are closed.
Those plans must include communication with the public about the reductions and alternate options for care, staff assigned to greet patients who aren’t aware of an emergency department closure, a process for in-patient coverage and a staffed ambulance on standby at the closed emergency department if possible.
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A spokesman for Health Minister Sylvia Jones declined an interview request from The Canadian Press on Friday, but provided a written statement from Jones that said the province is working with “all partners” including hospitals and unions to address “the challenge of maintaining the required staffing levels.”
She pointed to previous government efforts to shore up staffing levels including hiring internationally educated nurses and expanding a summer physician locum program that matches doctors with hospitals in need of help.
“We have an ambitious plan for the largest health-care recruitment and training initiative in the province’s history, which is already starting to see results,” Jones’ statement said.
Jones has rarely spoken to the media since she was sworn in to the health minister role last month. Critics have been calling for her to take on a more public leadership role in discussing the crisis in the province’s hospitals and the government’s planned response to it.
Those calls were repeated by the Opposition New Democrats on Friday amid news of the Ontario Nurses’ Association’s estimated closures.
“Where is Ontario’s Health Minister Sylvia Jones?” health critic France Gelinas said in a written statement.
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