Original Published on Nov 01, 2022 at 17:17

Temporary closure of Norfolk County’s Ontario only emergency department leaves residents rattled

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Over the past year, Sarah Nichol’s family needed three ambulance rides to Norfolk General Hospital in Simcoe. 

At other times, the Nichols made the five-minute drive themselves.

But had there been a medical emergency at their house Sunday night, they would have been out of luck.

The emergency department was closed for 24 hours from Sunday to Monday evening because of what the hospital described in a press release as “COVID-related illnesses.” 

That forced ambulances to take residents in medical distress to neighbouring hospitals in Brantford, Hagersville, Tillsonburg or Dunnville.

“It is potentially scary that the nearest emergency department would be at least half an hour away for most people in Norfolk County,” said Nichol, who learned of the closure by seeing signs posted outside the hospital on her way to drop off her children at school in Simcoe on Monday morning.

“It was definitely a shock to us,” Nichol said, adding her 14-year-old daughter was “very concerned.”

Norfolk’s only emergency department reopened as planned on Monday at 7 p.m.

In an email to The Spectator, hospital spokesperson Aaron Gautreau did not directly say whether any nurses were off sick with COVID-19 or in self-isolation due to being a close contact.

“The temporary reduction in hours was a result of a staff shortage due to illnesses related to COVID-19 — that includes stress and burnout,” Gautreau said.

The “extremely difficult decision” to close for 24 hours “helped stabilized staffing levels” enough to reopen the department, he said. 

But a staffing crunch remains at the hospital.

At full strength, 60 nurses work in the emergency department. At present the department has 31 nurses on staff, with nurses from other departments asked to work extra shifts to fill the gap.

“More often than not the last shift gets filled, but it didn’t happen this time,” Gautreau said.

The department needs one qualified triage nurse and at least five nurses to care for the roughly 80 patients who come through on a given day. When bodies are scarce, managers who are trained as registered nurses will take shifts themselves.

“This has happened one more than one occasion,” Gautreau said, noting the hospital “will always investigate and exhaust all options” before turning patients away. 

But with hospitals across the country desperate to hire nurses, Gautreau said Norfolk residents should brace themselves for more closures.

“Service disruptions and increasingly high wait times are likely to be an ongoing reality … as we continue to see increasing volumes of sick patients with diminishing resources to respond,” he said.

Nichol worries hospital staff are in for another bruising winter after years of pandemic-related stress. She would like to see the province hire more health-care workers so families like hers can be sure they can get the care they need close at hand.

Original Published on Nov 02, 2022 at 15:07

Emergency department closure caught Norfolk paramedics by surprise

By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The recent 24-hour closure of Norfolk County’s only emergency department due to a lack of nurses caught Norfolk paramedics off guard.

“We knew about an hour prior to closure,” Chief Sarah Page of Norfolk County Paramedic Services told The Spectator.

At that point on Sunday evening, several ambulances were out on the road, loaded with patients bound for Norfolk General.

“So as of that moment, we notified our dispatch and all of our ambulances were rerouted,” Page said.

Norfolk’s paramedic service notified hospitals in Haldimand, Brantford and Tillsonburg to expect Norfolk patients and alerted their ambulance service counterparts “in case they needed to help us,” Page said.

During the closure, which ended at 7 p.m. on Monday, Norfolk paramedics responded to 27 emergency calls, which Page said was “a slow day,” particularly as Monday was Halloween.

Norfolk’s EMS service asked nearby ERs to be as quick as they could on the receiving end, “because we recognize that having to go to a hospital outside our area clearly extends the time for every paramedic call, so we’re taking resources out of our area,” Page said.

“The hospitals really worked well with us.”

Compounding the challenge was a lack of nurses in the ICU at Norfolk General.

“We did also have to do two emergency transfers out of their ICU to other local hospitals because they were having some staffing challenges there as well,” Page said.

Despite the difficult circumstances, Page said there were at least two ambulances in Norfolk at all times throughout the temporary emergency department closure.

“We are very much hoping that this was an anomaly due to an extraordinary circumstance of a lot of illness in one short period of time,” she said.

Should there be another closure, however, Page would like to hear about it from the hospital “much earlier” so EMS can get more paramedics and ambulances on the road.

Hospital spokesperson Aaron Gautreau said the normal protocol in the case of a potential service reduction is to give 48 hours of notice to the public and community partners like EMS.

“However, this was an unexpected circumstance where we had very little notice and time to fill the vacant shifts due to illness,” Gautreau said in an email. “After exhausting all options and opportunities, we felt that we had to make this call for safety reasons.”

At Queen’s Park on Tuesday, Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady asked Health Minister Sylvia Jones how the government planned to fix a health-care system Brady described as being “in disaster mode.”

Jones said the Ford government has already added 6,000 nurses and personal support workers, including 1,000 internationally educated registered nurses now approved to practice in Ontario.

Brady wants the government to “entice health-care workers back to the front lines” by revoking Bill 124, which capped annual pay increases for nurses at one per cent for three years.

Earlier in the pandemic, Norfolk General closed its labour and delivery ward and suspended addiction services at a hospital-run detox centre called Holmes House, citing a lack of staff in both cases. Brady said residents are “worried they are going to see more of these reductions in the coming weeks and months.”

“Health-care workers have lost faith in their profession and have left,” Brady said.

“We need them all, and we need them today.”

This item reprinted with permission from   The Spectator   Hamilton, Ontario

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