Eight emergency rooms are closed in Newfoundland for varying amounts of time this Labour Day long weekend.
Eastern Health says the U.S. Memorial Health Centre in St. Lawrence is closed from Friday to Monday, September 5 at 8 a.m. and the Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre in Whitbourne will be closed for another week, with a reopening now planned for Monday, September 12.
For the Western Health region, the Bonne Bay Health Centre is using virtual ER services until Sunday at 8 a.m., and then going virtual again from Monday at 8 a.m. to Wednesday.
Virtual ER services are also helping out in Central Health. The emergency rooms are closed at the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre in Harbour Breton, the Dr. Y.K. Jeon Kittiwake Health Centre in New-Wes-Valley, and A. M. Guy Memorial Health Centre in Buchans throughout the entire long weekend and scheduled to reopen Wednesday morning. However, there is a six hour period on Tuesday where virtual ER assessments will be available at all three health centres.
Additionally, the Lewisporte Health Centre's ER is closed Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the ER at Green Bay Health Centre in Springdale was closed from Friday till Sunday morning.
In all these cases, the health authorities say the closures are due to staff shortages. In the event of an emergency, the authorities say to call 911 or head to the nearest open ER.
"This is the reality of the times we're living in, where healthcare professionals are in short supply," said Tom Osborne, Minster of Health. He thinks the situation should improve in the coming weeks.
"Over the next month or two, as people get back into the work routine from taking vacation or time off during the summer, we certainly hope to see some of the pressures, in terms of diversions, ease a little. It won't resolve all of the issues."
Osborne says the province is still working on further solutions, and will continue offering bursaries, signing bonuses and other incentives.
"We're increasing the coverage for family physicians setting up in the province from $100,000 to $150,000 for a startup incentive."
As well, in the coming days the provincial government is going to release a request for proposals on virtual care services.
"The optimal coverage is to have a family doctor, or to have a physician in the emergency department," Osborne said. "But certainly virtual care is better than not having access to a physician or the emergency department."
"We're aiming to provide coverage in areas where coverage is lacking."
Hilda Whelan, Mayor of Whitbourne, said she isn't surprised the town's health centre is remaining closed for at least another week after already being closed for much of the summer.
"We don't have the doctors," she said. "Simply put, we need doctors, nurses, paramedics." Whelan said the community has lost three doctors and needs at least two more for the centre to return to normal operations.
Whelan says while the province's financial incentives should help in some way, she thinks the real issue is a change in regulations that the College of Physicians and Surgeons that sees Canada accepting a limited number of internationally trained doctors a year.
"You still need these foreign doctors," she said. "We have been serviced very well by foreign doctors." Whelan says the rule needs to be changed to allow more foreign doctors to work in the country.
While Whelan is optimistic that the situation will soon improve, she said the doctor shortage is still a worrying problem for people living in the area and has affected her personally.
"I'm a cancer survivor. I receive a bone treatment every six months since I had my cancer. My treatment was delayed five months."
She isn't the only member of her family to face the challenges. "My brother had a heart attack," she said. "They took him in the car and took him over. He said 'No good to call an ambulance, I'd be here for four hours.' This is the way it is."
"All these people that are out there not getting these issues attended to, they're getting sicker and they're going to take more time and more doctors to look after them."
"Everyone is very, very disappointed," said Whalen. Townspeople have been asking her what they should do if an urgent emergency arises. Her response is simple: "All you can do is pray it doesn't happen."