The Gillam Hospital has reopened after closing for more than a week because of critical staff shortages, but health officials in the north are warning that the situation in the area remains “fragile” and they can’t say for sure that the hospital won’t be forced to close again anytime soon.
After being closed since Dec. 28 because of what the Northern Health region said were ongoing and persistent staffing issues, the Gillam Hospital reopened its doors to full clinical services at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Northern Health confirmed.
But in a statement, Northern Health added they could continue to see critical staffing issues in the coming days and weeks if staff members call in sick and can’t make it to work.
“The staff situation remains fragile and any additional sick calls of COVID-19 staff screening exclusions may jeopardize the hospital remaining open,” Northern Health warned on Wednesday in a media release.
“Every effort is being made to maintain health services close to home.”
And although the hospital is now back up and running in Gillam, the community’s Mayor Dwayne Forman said the recent closure created a high amount of stress and anxiety for many in the town of about 1,200 residents, and in the surrounding areas in northern Manitoba.
“It made things very difficult for those who rely on the hospital on a regular or daily basis,” Forman said on Wednesday. “And it’s extremely difficult on a lot of people’s anxiety and mental health when they don’t have an emergency department in the community.
“The nearest ER is over three hours away in Thompson, so just imagine someone going through something like chest pains and not being sure if they are having a heart attack, and then not even knowing where they can go or who they can call for help.
“Those added stressors in the community have become very difficult for a lot of our people.”
And Forman added that anxiety remains high in the community because of the knowledge that the hospital could close again if employees call in sick.
“We know it’s going to be touch-and-go for a while here because we know a lot of health care workers are coming down with COVID, so that strain on the system is going to continue,” he said.
And although Forman said it should help that the province recently changed the self-isolation period for health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 from 10 days to five, he said that decision also shows how dire the situation has become.
“What it does is show the desperation of the situation, and that we need some long-term fixes here,” he said. “And more than anything we need to look after the health of our health care workers and frontline workers, because they are the true heroes in all of this.”
Northern Health confirmed on Wednesday that while the hospital in Gillam was closed, four patients were transferred to the Thompson General Hospital, which is an approximately three-and-a-half-hour drive from Gillam.
Staff shortages have affected other areas of northern Manitoba recently, as on Dec. 28 it was also announced the Leaf Rapids Health Centre had been temporarily closed due to staff shortages.
Northern Health confirmed that the health centre in Leaf Rapids was “partially” reopened on Tuesday, and is now open for primary care appointments.
The Winnipeg Sun requested information on how many nursing positions are currently vacant at the Gillam Hospital, but Northern Health said that information would not be available on Wednesday.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun