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More weekend ER closures put pressure on B.C. health minister for long-term fix

At least five B.C. communities — including two on Vancouver Island — had ER closures this past weekend.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix addresses the media at the B.C. legislative building in Victoria on May 10, 2022. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

As B.C.’s health minister heralded the opening of a new nine-storey tower at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital Monday, critics wondered if there will be enough health care workers to staff it after several emergency room closures in small communities across the province over the weekend.

Emergency rooms in Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Clearwater, Oliver and Ashcroft closed temporarily between Friday and Sunday, forcing people to travel more than 100 kilometres to the closest hospital.

In Clearwater, a community of 2,300, B.C. Emergency Health Service paramedics were not immediately told the emergency room at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital would be closing. As a result they took a patient there before making the 120-kilometre drive to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops.

In a statement, Interior Health apologized that when the emergency room closed in Clearwater over the weekend, “some notifications did not happen in a timely manner.”

During a news conference in Kamloops Monday to mark the opening of Royal Inland Hospital’s new tower and announce three new operating rooms set to open next year, Health Minister Adrian Dix shared concern over persistent emergency room closures, saying the situation, particularly in Clearwater, is a “significant problem.”

The staffing shortages are largely caused by health care staff calling in sick, Dix said, with between 15,000 and 17,000 people off in a given week out of the approximately 126,000 public sector health workers.

The province and the health authorities are working to recruit and retain health care staff to address the staffing challenges, Dix said.

“We’re focusing on recruitment every day in these communities,” he said.

Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden said the recurring closure of the emergency room has many of the community’s 1,500 residents worried they won’t be able to access timely medical care in an emergency.

“People are frightened because they think ‘Well, what if I have a heart attack? What if I go into cardiac arrest?’ ” Roden asked. People have resorted to checking on Facebook whether the emergency room will be open or whether they must drive an hour to Royal Inland Hospital, she said.

A nurse who works at Royal Inland said the hospital is already operating at “horribly low and unsafe” staffing levels and short staffing at area hospitals exacerbates the problem.

Not only are patients diverted to Royal Inland, those who come to the Kamloops hospital for surgery or internal medicine can’t be discharged back to their home hospitals because the smaller hospitals don’t have the staff to care for them, said the nurse, who spoke to Postmedia News anonymously because she feared reprisals for speaking out.

Over the weekend, she said, Royal Inland’s emergency department had only four nurses out of an expected baseline of 12 nurses. Her department was operating at 60 per cent of baseline staffing levels.

Interior Health said at Royal Inland Hospital, 28 per cent of permanent clinical staff positions are vacant. The hospital has 283 full and part-time job postings for clinical positions including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and care aides.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union is pushing for a national human resources strategy to addressing the crisis-level staffing shortages, said president Aman Grewal.

“When the announcements are made about new facilities, the brick and mortar facilities being created, that’s the first question we’ve always ask is: ‘Where are you going to get the staff to staff these places?’ ” Grewal asked.

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau slammed the government for presiding over ribbon-cutting ceremonies and celebrating the opening of a new tower at Royal Inland Hospital with no certainty there will be any staff.

“This government seems to like to focus on infrastructure but has lost the focus on the essential role of health-care professionals,” she said.

Furstenau said she has “really deep worry and concern” about the emergency room closures over the weekend.

“To be in a situation where so many communities right now [are facing ER closures] … that’s a very harrowing place to be for people,” Furstenau said. “These are ultimately potentially life and death situations.”

Peter Milobar, B.C. Liberal MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, said that with one million British Columbians without a family doctor, many are using emergency rooms as default walk-in clinics because they have no other options.

“None of this is sustainable,” Milobar said. “We don’t feel like there’s been a proper urgency applied by the minister at all any of this.”