Temporary staffing shortages have forced two Alberta hospitals to close 17 hospital beds combined, Alberta Health Services says.
The Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre has closed 11 beds as a temporary measure and a "last resort," according to a health services statement, as vacancies for registered and licensed practical nurses have yet to be filled.
A "short-term staffing shortage" at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton has caused it to temporarily close six beds in its emergency department, health services said.
The health authority is working to quickly resolve both situations and is making efforts to fill the vacancies, a spokesperson said.
The beds in Lacombe — 120 kilometres south of Edmonton — will be reopened once staffing levels are stabilized. In the meantime, patients at the hospital will continue receiving proper care and there is still capacity for admitting patients to the facility, AHS said.
There are 24 hospital beds left at the Lacombe hospital, 20 of which are currently occupied by patients. There is space for patients to receive care, including private space for palliative patients, and the emergency department remains open, health services said.
There are no other service disruptions at that site, AHS added.
At Royal Alexandra meanwhile, there remain 50 beds open and the emergency department is open and accepting patients as, health services said.
Patient flow for hospitals in the Edmonton Zone is managed by AHS. There are several other emergency departments in and around the city patients can attend too, AHS said.
Nursing shortages worsened by pandemic: union
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents over 95,000 public sector workers, says it has heard from members throughout the province that memos sent out over the past couple of months warned of potential bed closures due to low staffing levels.
The 11 hospital beds in Lacombe are the most recent consequence of AHS not filling vacant positions, said Bonnie Gostola, a union vice-president.
"The community is going to suffer for it," she said, adding that the bed closures could force people to travel to other communities to seek care.
"It's going to push people out of their homes and out of their communities — out of their comfort."
Nursing shortages throughout most parts of Alberta are creating a vicious cycle of sorts, says the director of labour relations of United Nurses of Alberta, which represents over 30,000 nurses.
People will accept nursing positions, but their workload becomes overwhelming because the facilities in which they work are understaffed, said David Harrigan. That leads to the employees either moving to a different facility, or leaving the industry entirely, Harrigan said.
The vacancy issue started several years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded it and nurses are exhausted, said Gostola. But there is also a fear that once the pandemic is over, their jobs or salaries will be cut so the province can save money as it tries to recover financially.
"They're just fed up. They're done," she said.
There is a high level of anger and disillusionment among nurses toward provincial officials and morale is as low as it's ever been, said Harrigan.
Alberta Health Services and the provincial government have to decide whether they want to fix the vacancy problem or provoke a fight with nurses, who were labelled as heroes throughout most of the past 16 months, said Harrigan.