Temporary closure of Norfolk County’s only emergency department leaves residents rattled

Over the past year, Sarah Nichol’s family needed three ambulance rides to Norfolk General Hospital in Simcoe.

At other times, the Nichols made the five-minute drive themselves.

But had there been a medical emergency at their house Sunday night, they would have been out of luck.

The emergency department was closed for 24 hours from Sunday to Monday evening because of what the hospital described in a press release as “COVID-related illnesses.”

That forced ambulances to take residents in medical distress to neighbouring hospitals in Brantford, Hagersville, Tillsonburg or Dunnville.

“It is potentially scary that the nearest emergency department would be at least half an hour away for most people in Norfolk County,” said Nichol, who learned of the closure by seeing signs posted outside the hospital on her way to drop off her children at school in Simcoe on Monday morning.

“It was definitely a shock to us,” Nichol said, adding her 14-year-old daughter was “very concerned.”

Norfolk’s only emergency department reopened as planned on Monday at 7 p.m.

In an email to The Spectator, hospital spokesperson Aaron Gautreau did not directly say whether any nurses were off sick with COVID-19 or in self-isolation due to being a close contact.

“The temporary reduction in hours was a result of a staff shortage due to illnesses related to COVID-19 — that includes stress and burnout,” Gautreau said.

The “extremely difficult decision” to close for 24 hours “helped stabilized staffing levels” enough to reopen the department, he said.

But a staffing crunch remains at the hospital.

At full strength, 60 nurses work in the emergency department. At present the department has 31 nurses on staff, with nurses from other departments asked to work extra shifts to fill the gap.

“More often than not the last shift gets filled, but it didn’t happen this time,” Gautreau said.

The department needs one qualified triage nurse and at least five nurses to care for the roughly 80 patients who come through on a given day. When bodies are scarce, managers who are trained as registered nurses will take shifts themselves.

“This has happened one more than one occasion,” Gautreau said, noting the hospital “will always investigate and exhaust all options” before turning patients away.

But with hospitals across the country desperate to hire nurses, Gautreau said Norfolk residents should brace themselves for more closures.

“Service disruptions and increasingly high wait times are likely to be an ongoing reality ... as we continue to see increasing volumes of sick patients with diminishing resources to respond,” he said.

Nichol worries hospital staff are in for another bruising winter after years of pandemic-related stress. She would like to see the province hire more health-care workers so families like hers can be sure they can get the care they need close at hand.

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