The Sackville Memorial Hospital’s emergency department will close at 4 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the summer as the Horizon Health Network tries to combat the ongoing nursing shortage.
Service will resume at 8 a.m. each day and 24-hour coverage will remain throughout the rest of the week.
But with only six of nine registered nurse positions filled at the hospital’s ER, Horizon can’t say how long the nighttime closures will last.
“We are hoping to stabilize the staffing levels by the end of the summer, but at this time, we do not have a firm end date,” Geri Geldart, Horizon’s VP Clinical said in a Zoom media availability Friday.
Geldart committed to keeping the public informed on the network’s progress.
“The Sackville Memorial Hospital staff have held this service together for quite some time, they’ve worked extra hours, they’ve worked overtime, they’ve changed their schedules with really, very limited notice,” she said.
Pandemic adds to staffing challenges
Geldart said she appreciates the dedication of health-care workers to maintain coverage “over the past number of years” despite the ongoing nursing and doctor shortages.
“But as we enter the summer, it certainly brings new challenges for us. We have to balance our responsibilities to provide health care with the need to provide our staff with a reasonable amount of vacation time,” she said.
“And given the past year with all of the pressures that everybody has experienced with respect to COVID, it’s even more important that we give our staff the opportunity of having a small break.”
ER closures at the hospital have been happening more over the past several months, said Nancy Parker, Horizon’s executive director for the Moncton and Sackville hospitals.
She said officials understand the closures are concerning to people living in the Sackville-Tantramar area, but that the planned closure “poses much less risk” than the continuous risk of closures on short notice.
Response from leaders, community
New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon argued Premier Blaine Higgs broke a promise of maintaining 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage at rural ERs after backlash and a now-cancelled plan for health-care reform.
“I’m extremely disappointed that this promise has been broken, that the minister of health didn’t find a way to ensure those ERs were able to operate,” he told reporters Friday.
But Health Minister Dorothy Shephard doesn’t see it that way, saying the province committed to no permanent ER closures.
“This is not a permanent closure, these are temporary measures that are being put in place for the safety and well-being of patients and employees,” she said.
Shephard added this may “not be the only location this will happen to.”
Sackville Mayor Shawn Mesheau also disagrees with Coon’s stance.
“This isn’t about politics and broken promises,” he said. “This is about the health of people in our community.”
He was worried about his community and access to services when he heard the news, but admits “we were caught off guard.”
There needs to be more communication between all levels of government, he says.
“Maybe we can help find the solutions,” Mesheau says.
Sandy Burnett, who has been involved in a working group defending Sackville in the face of health-care reforms, worries about time if someone is forced to drive to Moncton.
“They will be seeking service at an emergency room that is much busier and tends to have much longer wait times,” he said Friday.
Burnett says action is needed, especially in such a rural province.
In a statement to Global News, Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, said she wasn’t surprised to learn of the Sackville reduction.
“This is only one of the many facilities across the province that are experiencing the dire shortage of registered nurses,” she said.
“Yesterday, Vitalité Health Network requested for any available registered nurses, licensed practical nurses or others to help at the Campbellton Regional Hospital this weekend,” Doucet said.
“Today Horizon sent a memo to its employees asking if anyone is available to help at the George L. Dumont Hospital as well,” she said. “Sadly, the delivery of health-care services throughout our province will continue to suffer in the wake of these vacancies.”