Standing room only at meeting on two-month closure of the Chesley hospital’s ER

CHESLEY – On Oct. 7, the Chesley hospital’s emergency department closed for eight weeks, with no guarantee of what will happen on Dec. 2, the scheduled reopening date. The smallest of the South Bruce Grey Health Centre’s four sites, it’s been hit hard during the current nurse shortage that’s affected hospitals across Ontario.

A public meeting on Oct. 18 at the Chesley Community Centre had an estimated attendance of 450 people – standing room only, with almost every seat filled and people standing in the lobby.

The meeting began with an overview of the situation, both provincially and locally, and continued with a two-hour question-and-answer session. Some members of the crowd had taken the opportunity to submit questions ahead of time, but there was no shortage of questions and comments from the floor.

The meeting was co-chaired by Arran-Elderslie Mayor Steve Hammell and South Bruce Grey Health Centre CEO Michael Barrett. Participating in the panel discussion were Dr. Jackie Wong, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Rick Byers, Barrett and Mandy Dobson – interim director of clinical services.

As the two-hour meeting progressed, certain themes emerged: Bill 124, which holds nurses’ wages to a one per cent increase, must be rescinded; the situation with agency nurses needs to be looked at – there was a suggestion Grey-Bruce should start its own agency; SBGHC needs to “think outside the box” regarding recruitment and retention of nurses, possibly including hiring nurses who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, or paying an extra shift premium, both of which are not done at present, at least not by SBGHC; SBGHC needs to do a better job of communications; and the closure of the Chesley ER has a negative impact on the entire area.

In response to a question about the two-month closure being poorly communicated, with no effort made to inform the Amish community, Heikkila said, “We were in a situation... absences on very short notice. We will do a better job of communications in the future.”

In later discussion, a member of the audience noted a lot of seniors don’t use computers. Communications should use other methods.

In response to a comment that other area hospitals, such as Hanover, have had no closures, and a question, if SBGHC administration has met with their counterparts at those hospitals, Barrett said, “We meet regularly.” That includes both the hospital corporations in Grey-Bruce, and the hospitals in the former South West LHIN area.

A number of questions focused on reaching out to unvaccinated health-care professionals. Barrett said no SBGHC staff were fired due to their COVID-19 vaccination status. However, new staff need to be vaccinated – that’s the case with every hospital in Ontario.

Byers was put on the spot regarding rescinding Bill 124. He replied that “the current contract ends March 31.” Byers was later asked about the process of rescinding a bill. Clearly unsatisfied with his response, the person who asked the question “strongly suggested” he find out how.

Another person commented that Dr. Wong and nurses had saved his life.

“Bill 124 needed to be repealed a year ago.”

The issue doesn’t only involve nurses – information emerged during the question period that stressed the need for physicians to cover the ER – and the need to free up nurses for the work they are trained to do, by having other staff – health care aides, etc. – take on some of their tasks.

One person commented that “continuity” is needed – “people aren’t going to clutch their chest and rush to their computer to see if the ER is open.” No one on the panel disagreed with that sentiment.

Safety has been a major concern for a lot of people – none more so than local first responders. One of them commented that with transporting people who have mental health issues to other hospitals, and winter weather, “police officers are not going to be in our community... this (closure of the Chesley ER) is not the safest solution.”

Althouth it wasn’t part of the discussion, the issue of ambulance response times was raised by a number of people.

There was discussion on retention incentives being offered locally, and provincial incentives for people to enter careers in nursing, as well as efforts to bring in health professionals from outside the province. Barrett noted that while some of the jobs posted are part-time and involve more than one site, jobs have also been posted for full-time, single-site nurse positions.

For the most part, people asked well-thought-out questions in a respectful manner. However, anger, frustration and fear were apparent in some of the comments.

Board chair Bill Heikkila pledged that questions and answers from the meeting will be posted on the SBGHC website.

There were a lot of red and black jackets in the room – the Chesley Kinsmen have been dedicated in their support of the hospital over the years. There were suggestions that a member of the service club should be on the hospital’s board of directors.

Also present were a number of members of the SBGHC board of directors, Brockton Mayor Chris Peabody, Bruce County’s director of paramedic services Steve Schaus, and other members of local emergency services.

Barrett stressed that at this point, everything is on the table. Decisions haven’t been made, and additional public input is welcome.

Byers promised to take back to his caucus the message he’d heard “loud and clear” about repealing Bill 124.

Heikkila stressed the commitment of the board to “four hospitals” and noted, “it’s clear people here care about their hospital.”

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times