Perth, Ont. hospital emergency department closed due to COVID-19 outbreak

The emergency room at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital in Perth closed Saturday morning and it will remain closed until Thursday because of a staffing shortage.

The hospital shuttered its ER at 7 a.m. because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

"I'm sad, and I'm fearful. I'm fearful of what this means to people who will be deprived of emergency medical care for the next four, five days," said Dr. Alan Drummond, an emergency room physician at the Perth Hospital.

Available staff from the emergency department at the Perth hospital will be transferred to the Smiths Falls hospital emergency department, which remains open, to support the anticipated increase in patients.

“Staff testing positive brought our very fragile staffing situation into a state of collapse,” hospital CEO Michael Cohen told Newstalk 580 CFRA on Friday.

“The rest of our hospital services remain intact. We are running full services in every other department and we also have two sites. Our emergency department in Smiths Falls is in full operation,” he said.

Drummond says the closure is an "absolute gut punch" for the community over the next week.

"To be strict about the language; yeah, COVID caused the closure of our emergency department but the reality of it is we have no built-in resilience in our nursing staff," Drummond said on Saturday.

Drummond says the hospital went from 15 emergency room nurses down to seven a week ago, and that number has since dropped to three due to COVID-19.

"Somebody needs to be held accountable for the fact that we lost 50 per cent of our nursing staff within several months which set us up, basically, to fail, should there be any uptake of COVID virus."

Word of the closure this weekend comes after a note earlier in the week that the hospital was looking at the possibility of having to close the Perth hospital ER overnight through the summer, which the hospital later said would not happen. Cohen explained that the nightly closures were a contingency plan.

“The messaging that went out on Monday was actually a leak of one of our worst case scenarios that we never planned to implement. It was very unfortunate that got out,” he said.

Cohen says the plan to reopen the Perth hospital this week will be gradual.

“We do expect by Thursday, we will be able to recollect our staff and begin to operate. Over the course of several days, we’ll start with limited hours for less urgent care and as our staffing complement begins to be replenished, we hope to be able to regain normal operations in our emergency department the following week,” he said. In a statement, the hospital said that as the "staffing situation stabilizes", the emergency department in Perth will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Cohen told CTV News on Saturday that the hospital is on-boarding two nurses from a nursing agency this week in an effort to stabilize staffing levels.

He urged anyone in the area who is having an emergency to still call 911.

“The closest hospital from here will be the Smiths Falls campus of our hospital but there are also other emergency departments locally that you can look to as well,” he said.

Dr. Drummond told CFRA earlier this week that the number of staff has been dwindling because of people leaving for other opportunities or quitting because of the working conditions.

“We’ve suddenly found ourselves with only five emergency nurses and insufficient staff to—I guess from the hospital’s perspective—to guarantee safe care, should somebody arrive in our emergency department,” Drummond said.

“I think our nurses have been quite open and clear,” he said. “They have been saying for not just weeks, but months and actually years, we can’t keep up with the pace, things have got to change, something’s got to happen here.”

He says hospital management has had many opportunities to address staffing issues, but have not.

“Now, they’re kind of reaping the benefits of what they have sown,” he said.

Drummond notes that the catchment area for the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital is about 25,000 people in a large geographic area between Smiths Falls and Peterborough, meaning many patients travel long distances to get to the emergency department.

Anyone needing urgent care will now have to drive 20 kilometres from Perth to Smiths Falls.

"I don't think it's fair for the people in this community," resident John Hastings said. "You know Perth is 6,000 (people), but you take in the surrounding community and you know we're 15-18,000 and we have a lot of seniors which is a problem for them."

Cohen says hospitals across Ontario are in crisis.

“This is a human resource issue and it affects our entire industry,” he said. “As a hospital system, we’re all struggling. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a CEO of a hospital in the province who says they have no staffing vacancies or no issues. This is a crisis of our industry.”

Cohen hopes the Perth hospital can reach a stable point by the middle of July.