Leadership with the Lake of the Woods District Hospital say they’re continuing to navigate their ongoing staffing shortages with ‘white-knuckles’ as they try to hang on and survive the summer season.

President and CEO Ray Racette held a regional media conference August 5 to update their ongoing situation, which includes a shortage of general hospital staff and physicians, as well as a shortage of staff for the Emergency Department during the hospital’s busiest months of the year.

“We’re trying to do everything possible to keep our Emergency Department open,” explains Racette. “We know how critical that service is for our region. We’re also the only Emerge within two hours of Winnipeg. And we serve an even larger [population] in the summer with our seasonal community.”

To help support staff, Racette says local workers are taking part in three weekly Emergency Department Crisis meetings with hospital representatives across northern Ontario, as well as the provincial government.

Racette explains the meetings focus on finding solutions for northern hospitals’ staff shortages each week, which in Kenora, sit around 40 per cent in Emerge. In Intensive Care Units, shift vacancy rates have been reported as high as 60 per cent for any given shift.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital reported shift vacancy rates around 7 to 10 per cent.

Two years of living through the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to tremendous burnout among physicians and healthcare workers. The pandemic has also caused multiple years' worth of backlog in every aspect of the healthcare system, from yearly vaccinations to delayed appointments.

And that’s just the mental impact of things. As well, between December 31, 2021 and June 12, 2022, the hospital says over 200 staff members of one-third of their entire workforce were forced to not work due to a COVID-19 infection, with an additional 130 staff members being exposed to the virus and forced to isolate.

“We are facing a surge right now of this Omicron variant which is very contagious,” adds Racette. “If someone gets COVID, that takes them out for a week and a half. And any shifts they were going to cover, need to be covered by somebody else. There’s a lot of things that we don’t have control over.”

In June, Racette says the hospital had 90 vacant shifts and 88 of them were covered by local staff members. The remaining two shifts ere covered through locum physicians provided by the province, and Racette says they’re working with community partners to help find more potential staff.

But things are looking more positive for August, as the hospital only has 28 vacant shifts to fill. Racette says it’s been a spot of good news, as is the fact that despite three months of warnings, the hospital hasn’t been forced to close down its emergency room yet.

“I want to recognize our hospital staff that are doing everything possible to keep emerge open,” says Racette. “They’re stretched. They’re working short. But we have been able to keep our services open through their efforts. But it does put pressure on our hospital staff who are picking up big workloads.”

To help ease some of the burnout on local staff, Racette is continuing to try to work with the provincial and federal governments to ease physician licensing requirements between different provinces. He says they’ve been able to turn a roughly 90-day turnaround time to as low as one week.

The LWDH has since been able to bring in one physician from Manitoba to help fill shifts, which helped to prevent an Emergency Department closure over the August Long Weekend. But as Racette notes, air travel in Canada is especially difficult right now.

“This crisis has been with us for a few months. It’s certainly putting tremendous pressure on our locum physicians. Some are going above and beyond anything that would normally be expected. We do worry about that, because of the pressure it places on all of our physicians.”

According to Racette, once the hospital is within 48 hours of the understaffed time period, they will begin to alert the media and government.

From there, hospital staff will need to cover the Emergency Department signs that are along the highway, they would display on-site signage in regards to the closures, and they would begin to coordinate with other emergency services to arrange for the transport of any critically ill patients that may attempt to access services through the closure.

“We’ve come very close to closing. It’s sort of white-knuckle times if you get within 3 days and you don’t have a solution for a shift,” says Racette.

“But we’ve received very good support locally, and we’re getting more Ontario physicians coming as well. We hope that those trends continue. But it’s still a house of cards. All you need is one or two people getting COVID. Anything like that takes out a lot of our coverage.”

Moving forward, Racette says the hospital is now looking at building relationships with larger hospitals in southern Ontario or with staff in Thunder Bay, for potential staff sharing plans as he suggests the healthcare system will need to undergo a dramatic change in the coming years.

“This is not a summer problem; this is a several-month problem. Health human resources will become a larger discussion. We have to look at how we can change the dynamic. It’s not just us. All of our Emergency Departments are in trouble,” finishes Racette.

The hospital is reminding residents that staff will continue to:

- Screen all patients, clients and visitors for symptoms of COVID-19,
- Require all individuals entering the hospital to wear a mask,
- Require all visitors to show proof of vaccination.