Emergency department closure caught Norfolk paramedics by surprise

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.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator