The emergency room services in several Saskatchewan communities are set to reopen over a period of several weeks starting in mid-June.
The closure of emergency rooms in rural community hospitals in the province, including in southwest Saskatchewan, happened during May as part of the implementation of the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) COVID-19 readiness plan.
This required the conversion of 12 community hospitals to alternate level of care (ALC) sites and the temporary suspension of emergency room services in these facilities.
These temporary closures of emergency rooms caused concerns in the affected communities, which required assurances from Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Jim Reiter when the reopening of these services was announced May 26.
“I know that there had been rumours of the temporary ER disruptions, that they may be permanent,” Moe said. “These are rumours. I can assure the people of Saskatchewan that this is not the case. These are temporary measures. It has always been the plan to reopen these facilities and the sooner that occur the better.”
He emphasized it was a difficult, but necessary decision to temporary close the emergency rooms to allow the SHA to carry out preparations that are part of an overall COVID-19 response.
“It isn't underestimating the sensitivities that are there and I don't think anyone should question the commitment of this government to rural health care,” he said. “Our record speaks quite differently, speaks to a much different priority and you'll see a commitment to rural health care will continue into the future, including to these facilities here as well. So I don't think it's that we have not foreseen or in any way thought that this would not be a sensitive decision. This was a very challenging decision, but it was one that was necessary in order for us to ultimately prepare and address our response to COVID.”
Reiter said all the statements by SHA staff during a news conference in April as well as the news releases to announce the COVID-19 plan indicated that these emergency room closures will only be temporary.
“Everything referred to it as temporary and mistakenly I guess we thought that would be enough and people would realize in most communities that was the case, but obviously some people was concerned about it,” he said.
SHA CEO Scott Livingstone noted that a future surge in COVID-19 infections in the province might mean some of these reopened emergency rooms will have to close again, if staff in those facilities have to be redeployed to assist at another location.
“But again, I would just reiterate, that would be temporarily,” he said. “Our numbers have been very good. We're very optimistic it won't happen at all.”
Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili was critical of the way the government dealt with the entire situation.
“I think it was poorly planned, poorly communicated and still leaves some very significant questions,” he told the Prairie Post. “There is obviously an important conversation to be had and planning to do around how we respond if there's a big surge in cases, how we use local hospitals differently. That's very valid, but pulling the trigger on that and closing down emergency rooms that are absolutely crucial in rural Saskatchewan at the same as they're re-opening everything else made no sense at all.”
He felt it was necessary to have the response plan ready to deal with a surge in COVID-19 infections, but he questioned the timing of the closure of these 12 emergency rooms.
“They didn't need to make the change when they did, and worst yet, people were finding out like a day before it closed,” he said. “Community leaders all over were extremely frustrated at the poor notice that they received and we still have a number of these facilities where there's no real open date ahead of us.”
The Saskatchewan NDP released data obtained in 2019 through a Freedom of Information request that indicate the frequency of service disruptions at rural hospitals dating back to 2012.
“I think that information reveals how frequently we're seeing closures of emergency rooms in rural settings all the time and how concerning it is that we still don't have a date for re-opening for those centres,” Meili said.
The SHA aims to reopen emergency departments to previous levels of service in the following nine communities – Leader, Herbert, Kerrobert, Oxbow, Preeceville, Davidson, Wolseley, Arcola, and Biggar. The first reopening is scheduled to take place in Arcola by mid-June and the service resumption at the other facilities will take place in the following weeks, but dates have not yet been determined.
The SHA indicated the reopening of emergency rooms in three community hospitals – Broadview, Radville, and Lanigan – will take longer to finalize. This delay is a result of service deliveries that were experienced at these locations before the COVID-19 readiness plan. It will therefore take more time to create a stable staffing pool for these facilities.