Any children in Newfoundland and Labrador who fall critically ill may have to be flown out of province to Nova Scotia to receive care because of capacity issues at the province's pediatric intensive care unit, CBC News has learned.
The pediatric intensive-care unit at the Janeway children's hospital in St. John's is on diversion status, meaning patients may have to be sent to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. According to an internal email obtained by CBC, staff in Newfoundland and Labrador's four regional health authorities were directed to stabilize patients before sending them to Nova Scotia.
Eastern Health placed the hospital on diversion status over the weekend, and as of Tuesday is still in place.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the health authority said the PICU has been "at or near" full capacity since last week, and some shifts have been extended due to the increased number of patients.
As of Tuesday, no patients have been diverted to Halifax, said Eastern Health. According to the statement, it is anticipated that the situation will be over "in a few days."
The spokesperson said if a critically-ill child is diverted to the IWK, a Janeway social worker will work with the family to access financial supports for travelling to Halifax.
Eastern Health said diversion is standard practice when a health facility is near capacity, and was last used in the Janeway's PICU in 2019.
Health Minister says situation is 'unusual'
Speaking with reporters Monday afternoon, Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie said no children were sent out of province over the weekend due to the low capacity. He said the PICU at the Janeway has a six-bed capacity, and five out of the six beds were full over the weekend.
"Eastern Health reached out to IWK for a contingency plan in case that sixth bed was full and the seventh patient came in," Haggie said.
Haggie said he remembers the situation occurring once before, but it's unusual. He said the unit averages three patients at a time.
Haggie said the capacity issues in the PICU are unrelated to the cluster of COVID-19 cases on the Burin Peninsula, which are mostly in people under age 20.
When asked about concerns of staff shortages in the PICU, Haggie said he isn't aware of any "significant challenges" in that unit. However, he said the neonatal intensive-care unit does have significant staffing challenges.
Since the PICU and NICU are both specialized areas, Haggie said, it can be difficult to bring staff in from other units.
"It's a skill set that's hard to find," he said.
CBC has asked Eastern Health and the Registered Nurses Union of Newfoundland and Labrador for comment.