The Manitoba hospital serving many of the least-vaccinated health districts in the province has temporarily closed 10 beds due to a shortage of nurses.
Southern Health regional lead for acute care and chief nursing officer Noreen Shirtliff confirmed Boundary Trails Health Centre — which sits between the cities of Winkler and Morden on the connection between Highways 3 and 14 — has shuttered the beds until mid-October.
Shirtliff said while she couldn’t give an exact number, there are currently "vacancies" in nurse positions in the emergency department at the hospital.
The situation is due, in part, to trouble the centre has had hiring for term positions: a handful of nurses are away on maternity or other scheduled leaves, and a provincewide shortage means those looking for work are more likely to take one of the many available permanent positions.
"Unfortunately, this isn’t unique to Boundary Trails. We have a (nursing) shortage happening in this province," she said Tuesday.
Over-capacity protocols are in place should COVID-19 cases in the region spike again and more beds at the hospital may be needed, Shirtliff said, adding Southern Health was monitoring the situation.
This isn’t the first time Boundary Trails has faced a staffing crunch during the pandemic. In May, the hospital closed two of its three operating rooms, after more than a dozen health-care workers had to self-isolate after being identified as COVID-19 close contacts.
A doctor practicing in Southern Health, who asked not to be named by the Free Press, said the 94-bed hospital has had to reassign experienced charge nurses, who typically co-ordinate the connection between patients, nurses and doctors. Additional work to fill gaps has been piled on to those duties, meaning doctors are losing one-on-one time with nurses, the doctor said.
"Unfortunately, this isn’t unique to Boundary Trails. We have a (nursing) shortage happening in this province." ‐ Noreen Shirtliff , Southern Health chief nursing officer
"It feels much more scattered, and I’ve never worked at a hospital where they didn’t have a charge that was just doing charge work," the doctor said.
The doctor said they weren’t sure how the hospital would be able to get nurses to return should COVID-19 cases get more dire if they aren’t coming in now — calling the idea "wishful thinking."
"It sounded like sort of a well, we'll think about it later (thing)," the doctor said. "Or maybe if they have the (case) numbers to prove it, and it becomes this urgent thing, maybe there's nurses not currently working or maybe they will pull them out of the testing sites.
"Maybe that will trigger something within the system that then they have the protocol or numbers in line where they can pull from different places."
When asked about the nurse shortage at Boundary Trails, Health Minister Audrey Gordon didn’t speak directly about the situation but referenced 400 additional seats in nursing education the province announced in July.
These seats will be available to prospective students starting in the 2022-23 academic year.
One of the South Health doctor’s biggest concerns is the health-care system in southern Manitoba suffering under a fourth wave. Boundary Trails serves Winkler and the Rural Municipality of Stanley, the two least-vaccinated health districts in the province.
"As I'm reflecting now back 18 months, I just feel disoriented. I feel like there's several worst-case scenarios that I hope don't happen, like (Boundary Trails) just getting overwhelmed," the doctor said.
"These are community members, yes, I'm angry at, but I love a lot of them, too. There's lots of families in my practice that don't vaccinate, and they have these amazing, smart, witty winsome kids. And it's heartbreaking."
-With files from Maggie Macintosh
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.