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Pair of northern health facilities close, reopen, staff shortages blamed

Health centres in both Gillam and Leaf Rapids are back up and running after a pair of temporary closures late last month.
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Health centres in both Gillam and Leaf Rapids are back up and running after a pair of temporary closures late last month.

The two facilities, both operated by the Northern Health Region (NHR), were announced last month to have total service shutdowns for about a week in Gillam and about two weeks in Leaf Rapids. Shrinking staff levels at the facilities were blamed for the closures, which were both ended earlier than initially announced.

The Gillam Hospital was first closed from Dec. 28 on to Jan. 5, but was partially reopened Dec. 30-31 for primary care appointments. More primary care appointments were later made available on Jan. 1-2, but all other services were referred to health facilities in Thompson, about 250 kilometres by road away down Highway 280.

“Every effort is being made to open earlier. Your understanding is appreciated,” reads the NHR closure notice.

The Leaf Rapids Health Centre closed Dec. 27 and was initially supposed to remain shut until Jan. 10, but partially reopened Jan. 4 for primary care appointments. During the closure, the NHR advised residents that all clinical care requests or other supports would either be provided in Lynn Lake or Thompson - over a two hour drive away one way and at least a four hour drive the other way, both on unpaved roads in subzero conditions.

Phone calls for the Leaf Rapids centre were forwarded to Lynn Lake during closure.

The reason provided by the NHR for both closures were “ongoing, persistent staffing issues.” Both centres are operating with higher than average vacancy rates. Leaf Rapids is supposed to be staffed with three registered nurses (RN) at full capacity, but according to NHR documents unearthed through a Manitoba NDP Freedom of Information request earlier this year, only one RN is on staff there. In Gillam, the hospital is staffed with one licensed practical nurse (LPN), one nurse practioner and one health care aide, but instead of having the full-strength capacity of 13 RNs on-site, only six are stationed at the hospital.

The vacancies could mean big problems if even one person gets sick or is unable to go to work.

“The staffing situation remains fragile and any additional sick calls or COVID-19 staff screening exclusions may jeopardize the centre remaining open,” reads the reopening announcement from the NHR.

“Every effort is being made to maintain health services close to home.”

The Community Health Centre in Wabowden also saw an interruption in service over the holidays, with no after-hour on-call services from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3. Services at the Wabowden centre have also been restored as of press time.