Health officials throughout Canada have reduced the hours of hospital emergency departments and urgent care clinics in recent weeks, a move that may be extended into the summer in certain cases due to an increase in patients and staff shortages.
Clinicians attribute the situation to a return of viral diseases such as COVID-19 among adults and children, as well as a push by others to seek care delayed by the pandemic, and aggravated by a large number of sick or burned-out healthcare personnel.
The burden has resulted in images of packed hospital corridors and full clinic waiting rooms, hours-long waits for inpatient care, and more than 100 percent occupancy rates in children’s facilities. It has also reignited discussion over structural issues in the government-funded healthcare system.
The Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital in eastern Ontario stated on Thursday that its emergency department in Perth will be closed from Saturday to Thursday due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s like the four horsemen of the apocalypse all descending on us in health care at once,” Alan Drummond, a family and emergency physician in the town of 6,000 people, said to Reuters.
Drummond sees people waiting up to 20 hours to be admitted, which can lead to a worsening of their illness or even medical blunders. He attributes the problem to years of insufficient financing for hospital beds and community care.
While hospitals in small towns and communities in Canada occasionally shorten their hours, regional health centres are more likely to do so.
The health government of Ontario, Canada’s most populated province, would not specify how many hospitals are affected by partial or temporary closures, but said it had taken steps to address the issue, including keeping nurses and other healthcare employees.
“Sometimes hospitals must make the difficult decision to close their emergency departments temporarily so that operations can continue throughout the rest of the hospital,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
According to hospital announcements, hospitals in Quebec, the country’s second-largest province, New Brunswick, and Manitoba have also partially closed departments or temporarily reduced hours for periods ranging from a few weeks to a few months.
The Hotel Dieu Hospital’s Urgent Care Clinic in Kingston, Ontario, decreased its hours for the Canada Day holiday weekend. The Kingston Health Science Centre’s spokeswoman described the move, which began on Friday, as a planned one-time reduction, but said that “staffing shortages and the current surge in patient volumes will continue throughout the summer.”
Children have been particularly severely struck by the healthcare crisis, with children who had no prior exposure to a variety of viruses falling unwell during the spring as many individuals abandoned face masks designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For many weeks in May and early June, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, was operating at 110 percent to 120 percent capacity. According to a spokeswoman, occupancy was at an all-time high in May.
Low staffing and rising patient loads are “kind of like that perfect storm,” said Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association and a pediatrician.