Across Ontario, as Sylvia Jones was being sworn in as minister of health, the province was pockmarked with emergency room closures and scaled-back operations as a staffing crisis took hold of the health-care system.
The Perth and Smith District Falls Hospital was forced to close its ER for almost a month as a result of low staffing. Glengarry Memorial in Alexandria, Ont., had to shut its doors to emergency patients every night in the latter half of July for similar reasons.
The closures drew the ire of advocacy groups who begged the province for answers, with some saying the health minister was unavailable at the height of the crisis.
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The Ontario Nurses Association (ONA) says repeated requests to meet with Jones fell “on deaf ears.”
“It took several months before we were able to actually have a conversation with her,” said Angela Preocanin, the first vice-president of the ONA. “It was cancelled several times.”
Preocanin said the brief meeting finally took place in September, roughly three months after Jones was sworn in on June 24.
Opposition MPPs made public statements throughout the summer, calling on Jones to reassure the public about access of care in the midst of a crisis.
“As the Premier and Minister of Health, they should be standing front and center to fix this ongoing crisis, yet Doug Ford and Sylvia Jones are consistently nowhere to be found,” Dr. Adil Shamji, the Liberal health critic, said in a statement on Aug. 2.
On July 22, Ontario NDP health critic France Gélinas asked: “Where is Health Minister Sylvia Jones as the hospital system crumbles and health-care workers cry out for help?”
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Jones’ calendar from June 24 to Aug. 1, obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request, offers some insight into what Ontario’s minister of health was doing as the emergency rooms across the province dimmed the lights.
The calendar was released with some redactions and excluded work Jones may have done in her capacity as the MPP for Dufferin-Caledon, which the minister deemed fell outside of the records request made by Global News.
Staff for Minister Jones said that she was receiving briefing on the file “within the first 24 hours of being sworn in” and was made available to the media “within the first weeks.”
“Throughout that time, the business of government continued and information was regularly communicated to the media, including to your outlet,” a spokesperson said.
“It is important to note that Minister Jones continues to work even when it’s not formally recorded in her calendar,” the minister’s office said.
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The following is a list of key dates in late-June and July, including recorded emergency room closures and important events listed in Sylvia Jones’ calendar:
The first day as minister of health for Jones, according to her calendar. One event is scheduled — “minister meet and greet” for 30 minutes at 12 p.m.
Jones attends her first cabinet meeting.
Perth and Smith Falls Hospital is forced to close its emergency department for three weeks, until July 24.
No events are scheduled in Jones’ calendar for July 2, a Saturday.
Jones receives her first recorded briefing on emergency room closures in Ontario. A Microsoft Teams meeting titled “Minister Briefing: Emergency Department Closures” is scheduled for 3 p.m.
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Red Lake Margaret Cochenour Hospital in northern Ontario closes its emergency department overnight from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. because it is “unable to staff” its operations.
A busy day is scheduled in Jones’ calendar.
It begins with a review of media clips and daily minister’s briefing. This takes place near daily throughout the month, despite Jones not taking part in a series of interviews until August.
The minister is also scheduled to take part in a foundational training course.
Jones has a meeting with Dr. Catherine Zahn, deputy minister of health, and the federal health minister.
Saint Mary’s Memorial Hospital emergency room closes overnight.
Two events are listed in Jones’ calendar. Just before 8 a.m., the minister is scheduled for “daily review media clips.”
Shortly after, she takes part in a briefing with “MOH-MO directors.”
The emergency department at Seaforth Community Hospital closes overnight from July 12 to July 14. Clinton Public Hospital is also forced to close its emergency department at 2 p.m.
Jones’ schedule is busy, with a note attached to the top of the day stating she would begin her day at 9 a.m., when a review of media clips is set to take place.
She also receives a briefing on hospital capital plans, including unsolicited proposals and reviews AMO delegations. At 11:30 a.m., Jones is scheduled to take part in a meeting titled “Minister’s briefing: ED hours of operation.”
At 3 p.m., Jones’ team schedules 45 minutes for an event that reads, in part, “hanging artwork in private office, Zoom install with icon photo.”
Her day is set to end with a foundational training course on Ontario Health.
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Jones’ calendar includes a meeting with Clearpoint Private Hospital. Its website describes it as “one of the few public/private hospital licenses under the Ontario Ministry of Health.”
The next month, on Aug. 18, Jones announced that privately delivered, but publicly covered services would increasingly be used to ease the burden on hospitals.
Jones said Ontario needed to be “bold, innovative and creative” when looking for ways to improve the health system.
The minister’s office did not address a question asking if the meeting with Clearpoint Private Hospital in July was related to the announcement the next month.
Both Saint Mary’s Memorial Hospital and Seaforth Community Hospital close their emergency rooms overnight.
Jones spends the day on the road. She is scheduled to make phone calls as she drives to Hamilton, before touring McMaster University Labs and meeting with the Hamilton OHT at St Joseph’s healthcare.
The minister then travels to and tours Hospice Niagara in St. Catharines, before a personal hold in her calendar from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Saint Mary’s Memorial Hospital emergency department was closes for more than a day. Its ER closes at 5 p.m. on July 22, remaining shut until 7 a.m. on July 24. That day, the emergency room closes again at 5 p.m., remaining shut overnight.
There are no events scheduled on Minister Jones’ calendar for July 23 — a Saturday.
Jones is scheduled for two hours of media training beginning at 11 a.m. to speak to journalists the following day, almost a month after she was sworn in as Ontario’s health minister.
The next day, at around 10 a.m., she is scheduled to speak to the media at the grand opening of a new dental clinic in Toronto.
Journalists and the public are given no prior warning of her appearance on that day, with the minister listed simply as “a Government of Ontario representative” when the event is announced.
A section of Kingston General Hospital containing 10 beds is closed for the weekend of July 30 and 31.
There are no events scheduled in Jones’ calendar on Saturday, July 30.
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On Aug. 2, Jones broke her silence and took part in a round of interviews with various media outlets about the crisis in Ontario’s hospitals.
“That hasn’t changed anywhere, there’s burnout in every sector, in every department across this province,” ONA’s Preocanin said, speaking to Global News, on Nov. 15.
“The workload is terrible (for nurses) — it’s a warzone anywhere you look, it’s a warzone.”