County Warden Liz Danielsen said she’s “extremely disappointed” the County’s emergency departments could see reduced services in a matter or weeks following a Nov. 22 community update from the Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS).
HHHS CAO Carolyn Plummer and the board of directors wrote that if they can’t find adequate staffing, “We will have to close one of the emergency departments during a set number of hours and days. This situation may persist for some time and we may not be able to forecast when we can resume full operation at both emergency departments.”
Danielsen said if it happens, it “will have a ripple affect across the County, not only for patients in need, but on other services as well, like the County’s paramedic service.”
She added she was “particularly disappointed that there was so little notice of something that will have such an impact. The County will be discussing this to consider what we can do to help reduce that impact and try to ensure that there is no permanent closure.”
According to HHHS, there were 18,633 trips to emergency, including 10,426 in Minden and 8,207 in Haliburton.
In the community update, Plummer and the board outline some of the obstacles they say the organization is facing and its possible impacts.
She told The Highlander on Nov. 23 that they are facing a shortage of registered nurses, for which the average age is 47. They are also looking for an emergency department physician and registered practical nurses.
Plummer said although they have been trying to recruit, including help from staffing agencies across the country and other healthcare organizations in the province, personnel issues are prevalent across Ontario, Canada and the world.
She said it’s a particular problem in rural communities with retirements, injuries, parental leaves, health issues and pandemic burnout and stress further exacerbating a bad situation. She added “we know it has been a challenge for staff to find suitable and affordable housing in the community.”
She stressed the current staff shortage is not related to a vaccine mandate which took effect Nov. 15 with 97.4 per cent of staff either fully vaccinated or had received one dose, continuing to work with regular testing and proof of their intention to receive the second jab. “No Registered Nurses were placed on leave or resigned due to the policy, and the majority of the small number of staff on leave are in support areas rather than direct patient care,” she said.
As for next steps, Plummer said no decision has been made about which emergency department will need to reduce services. They’ll make that decision based on typical volumes of patient visits to each emergency department; staff schedules, gaps and staffing models; the geographic location of each emergency department in relation to communities and feedback from the Ministry of Health, Ontario Health East and Haliburton County Paramedic Service, among others.
If they proceed, Plummer said they would give the community at least 48 hours notice. She added they will continue to try to recruit staff and work with health care partners to assist patients.
She said the community can help by spreading the word that the help wanted sign is out, and people can contact hr@ hhhs.ca.
Plummer and the board are also asking the public to access care through their family doctor or nurse practitioner whenever possible.
MPP Laurie Scott was unable to do an interview but issued a statement to the paper the afternoon of Nov. 23.
In it, she said, “It’s unfortunate that Haliburton Highlands Health Services may have to make the difficult decision to adjust hours for one of their Emergency Departments. As we know, the human resource shortage in health care is not a new problem.”
She went on to cite a list of Ontario health care investments to boost the ranks of nurses, and personal support workers.
Meanwhile, Minden Hills councillor, Jennifer Hughey, expressed concern on her Facebook page. She said she recently took her nine-year-old daughter to the Minden emergency department for an allergic reaction. She added that she’s been treated there herself and was once airlifted to Peterborough Regional Health Centre.
“Time matters. It always will, and some won’t have time to get to another ER,” Hughey wrote.