A COVID-19 outbreak has been in effect at Hawkesbury and District General Hospital (HGH) since Tuesday, January 4, and due to persistent staff shortages, hospital management is prepared to temporarily close the emergency department if necessary. 

HGH Chief of Staff Dr. Julie Maranda said on Thursday, January 6, that four patients out of 30 on the East Wing Medical Surgical Unit had tested positive for COVID-19. 

“We tested every single patient up there,” Maranda said. 

All HGH patients are tested for COVID-19 when they are admitted to the hospital, but routine testing of all patients already in the hospital is not usually done. Maranda said the choice to test the patients was made after a specific concern arose. Another round of inpatient testing at HGH is planned for Friday, January 7. 

Only vaccinated essential care partners and visitors for exceptional circumstances are permitted in the hospital. 

A COVID-19 outbreak is also in effect at Glengarry Memorial Hospital in Alexandria. 

In the nearby Outaouais region of Québec, no emergency room service will be available at the community medical and social services centre in St-André-Avellin north of Montebello until January 28 because of a high rate of COVID-19 infection among the facility’s employees. Patients who normally use the St-André-Avellin emergency department may travel to Hawkesbury instead, which could apply extra pressure on HGH’s already short-staffed facility.    

“We are concerned this will increase our volumes,” said Maranda. 

“We’re not fully staffed in our ER as it is,” she added. 

Maranda said patient volumes at the HGH emergency department had decreased during the pandemic but have increased during the past week with patients requiring important medical attention. Due to the increased number of patients and reduced availability of staff, plans are being put into place to close temporarily close the hospital’s emergency department if necessary. 

“It continues to be a possibility,” Maranda said. 

She is optimistic the situation will improve during the next two weeks, but it will depend on if more employees become ill and are unable to work. 

“We are doing everything we can to avoid it,” the HGH’s Chief of Staff assured. 

If the emergency department must temporarily close, HGH will implement a communication plan which will explain alternative options for urgent medical care to the public. A strategy to direct emergency patient needs will also be developed with local paramedic services.  

Maranda said a minimum of six staff members are required to properly operate the emergency department at night and 12 or more staff members are located there during the day, depending on patient volumes. She said shortages in staffing are often filled only a short amount of time before a shift begins, and some staff are working double shifts, which eventually begins to test the limits of staff resilience. 

“That can only go so far,” Maranda noted. 

She said after 18 months of the pandemic, staff burnout is in an increasing risk, which is another reason why a temporary closure of the emergency department is being considered. Maranda said HGH employees have felt pressure resulting from the pandemic on their families, like all other families. 

Maranda emphasized there was already an increasing staff shortage at HGH prior to the beginning of the pandemic and the current challenges are not a result of staff being dismissed because they chose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“We did let go some unvaccinated employees with a heavy heart,” Maranda acknowledged. 

However, she could not specify the exact number of HGH employees who were terminated. 

“I can assure you it was a very small number,” said Maranda. 

She emphasized that decisions involving employee vaccination were made based on the safety of patients and the community.

HGH was facing challenges with recruiting staff before the pandemic began and employees have left the hospital since the pandemic began for other reasons. 

“With the pandemic, we saw a lot of early retirements, and increasingly, some sick leave,” said Maranda. 

She said others left for other career opportunities, such as jobs with public health agencies. Maranda estimated the employment vacancy rate at HGH is approximately 40 per cent. 

Maranda emphasized that HGH is not hiding information from the public about the realities facing health care within the present context of the pandemic, and that the hospital wants to be a regional leader in advocating for the needs of the community. 

“We’re often the ones to be blunt about the truth,” she said. 

As of the afternoon of Thursday, January 6, the emergency department at Hawkesbury and District General Hospital remained open 24 hours per day and urged people to not neglect emergency medical needs but to make sure they only use the emergency department for genuine emergencies.