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ER in Clearwater closing again due to staffing shortages — this time for 5 nights

This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.

A stylized phrase reading 'SITUATION CRITICAL', made to read like a red heartbeat monitor.

The emergency department at the Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater, B.C., is set to be closed overnight for five days, adding more pressure on the B.C. community worst affected by ongoing ER closures this year.

Not counting this closure, the Clearwater hospital has had its emergency department closed for a total of 375 hours this year.

Interior Health, the health-care authority responsible for the hospital, announced the closures in a news release on Wednesday. The hospital’s ER will be on diversion from 6 p.m. until 7 a.m. every night from Aug. 3 – Aug. 7, with 24-hour service to resume starting Aug. 8.

Clearwater is a district 120 kilometres north of Kamloops, with a little over 2,300 residents. Data analyzed by CBC News shows its ER has been closed the equivalent of 22 days when the current closure is included. Anyone seeking medical care has to travel to the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops.

Merlin Blackwell, Clearwater’s mayor, says the chronic issues at the hospital stem from a staffing shortage, specifically of trained nurses who are leaving the profession due to unsustainable work hours.

 

Blackwell says he is “absolutely terrified” that someone will die as a result of not being able to access the emergency room.

“It’s already happened in Ashcroft with a death there,” he said. “We are currently in the middle of a 400,000-visitor tourism season. We have the Trans Mountain project here with between 900 to 1,100 workers.

“We are playing Russian roulette with people’s health right now.”

It isn’t just the hospital ER that is having issues. Ambulances and paramedics in Clearwater are also affected by staffing shortages, according to Bill Haring, a councillor for the district, who was a paramedic until 2020.

“Sometimes we’re left without an ambulance between Blue River and Kamloops and no hospitals because of the closures that night,” he said. “There could potentially be no services available to people in Clearwater.”

Haring says B.C.’s comparatively low per-capita spending on health — the least by province in Canada, according to Statistics Canada — is a “recipe for disaster” and that the provincial government should prioritize funding its health-care system.

Blackwell says that provincial and federal governments and health authorities would have to do more to attract more health-care workers into the province. But he also says that communities have a part to play in attracting workers and making them feel welcome.

“I’ve been working with the local health authority on quick fixes. I’ve managed to recruit one part-time and, potentially, one full-time nurse in the last week and a half,” he said.

B.C. hospital ERs have had a number of recent closures, including a five-hour closure in Ashcroft on July 29, a 24-hour closure in Lillooet on July 27 and a temporary closure in Merritt on July 4.

Clearwater Mayor Merlin Blackwell says health-care staffing issues affecting his community have been ongoing for nearly a year. (Michael McArthur/CBC News)

Community feeling stressed

Nikki Vincent, the chief operating officer of Yellowhead Community Services Society in Clearwater, which provides support services for families and senior citizens in the region, says there is a general sense of anxiety over the repeated closures, including from families with young children and those with complex mental health issues.

“We’re not the only community that’s struggling with this. But, certainly, it’s been very, very hard,” she said. “A lack of access to medical services will certainly be a barrier to some and may change their decision on whether or not they want to move to this community.” 

Paul Adams, the administrator of the B.C. Rural Health Network, an advocacy organization for health care in rural B.C., says rural communities occasionally feel overlooked when it comes to provincial health-care priorities.

“I’m not sure that it’s intentional, but it’s certainly felt,” he said. “There is certainly, within rural communities, the feeling that we don’t get the same equity of care and we don’t get the same health outcomes.”

Adams said communities should be able to take a more active role in managing their health infrastructure and that the province should incentivize placing medical students in more distant communities.

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