'We've just been abandoned': frustration grows as NRHA keeps Leaf Rapids hospital closed

On Dec. 29, NRHA said the Leaf Rapids Health Centre will reopen on Jan. 10 — but as of Saturday, that's no longer the case. This is the third time the hospital has been closed during the pandemic because of staffing problems. 

Resident Dennis Anderson fears people will be in danger without medical attention

Dennis Anderson, 59, and his mother, Minnie Anderson, 82. (Submitted by Dennis Anderson)

Leaf Rapids resident Dennis Anderson says he was "taken aback" when he heard news that the Northern Regional Health Authority is indefinitely extending the closure of the town's health centre. 

The notice was posted on the authority's Facebook page on Saturday, citing the decision as a "the result of ongoing, persistent staffing issues," and noting the hospital will be closed "until further notice." This comes after the authority decided to close two hospitals — Leaf Rapids Health Centre and Gillam Hospital — at the end of last year. 

On Dec. 29, NRHA said the Leaf Rapids Health Centre will reopen on Jan. 10 — but as of Saturday, that's no longer the case. This is the third time the hospital has been closed during the pandemic because of staffing problems. 

"I was thinking to myself, holy cow, this is really, this is getting to a critical stage now," said Anderson. 

Leaf Rapids is around 750 km north of Winnipeg. In the posted notice, the northern health authority says all clinical care and support services will be provided through Lynn Lake or Thompson, each about a two and four-hour drive from town. 

In a statement, NRHA says its goal is to implement a plan to meet the health needs of citizens served by the Leaf Rapids Health Centre during this period of closure.

"No one wants to close a health centre, even temporarily. We understand the apprehension some community members feel," the statement says. 

NRHA said the Gillam Hospital has reopened on Jan. 5. 

No COVID tests available

Anderson says with the health clinic being closed, there's been no COVID-19 testing capacity in the community or opportunities for people to get their third dose of the vaccine.

"We don't even have anybody at the clinic to answer a question. You can't go for a test. There are no rapid tests available in town. We're pretty much left to our own devices," he said. "I'm pretty certain there are cases in town and who's tracking that?" 

"I just feel that we've just been abandoned by government and regional health," Anderson said.

A notice posted by the Northern Health Region says the Leaf Rapids Health Centre will not be reopening on Jan. 10, 2022. (Submitted by Dennis Anderson)

He wants the federal government to send in military help and bring in two nurses for the community. 

On Dec. 29, NDP Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton also wrote to Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister of health, asking him to engage the Canadian Armed Forces. 

Anderson said he feels the health authority is playing "Russian roulette with peoples' lives" 

"Somebody is going to pass because of our clinic not being open," he said. "An hour ride could be a death sentence." 

'Reprehensible': Grand Chief 

On Monday afternoon, Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization that represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba, issued a statement about the closure. 

"It is reprehensible that the Northern Health Region would close a health centre in Northern Manitoba amidst the spread of COVID-19," Settee said. 

Settee said he's worried about the well-being and safety of MKO citizens who depend on accessing health services in Leaf Rapids. He said MKO has not heard from the health authority or province about the indefinite closure, which is disappointing. 

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee calls the closure of the Leaf Rapids Health Centre 'reprehensible.' (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"I am very concerned MKO citizens may be required to travel to Lynn Lake, Gillam, or Thompson to receive health care as we encounter rising rates of COVID-19. Travel during winter months can be difficult for many as road conditions are often challenging," he said. 

Settee said the lack of COVID-19 tests and vaccines within Leaf Rapids at this time is also concerning. He said MKO is not aware of any timeline for the re-opening of the health facility. 

"All Manitoba citizens have the right to access equitable and quality health care. Clearly, this is not the case for citizens living in Leaf Rapids and Gillam," he said. 

He's calling on provincial and federal governments to provide long-term health solutions for Leaf Rapids and Gilliam. 

'We can't take chances' 

Anderson's mom, Minnie, is an 82-year-old breast cancer survivor who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). She often needs an oxygen machine or blood pressure check at the local clinic, and will be flying to Thompson until the health centre opens again. 

Prior to this week, she was in Winnipeg for appointments. Anderson said the flights have been costly for the family and posed barriers, but they want to keep her safe. 

"We can't take chances with her," he said. 

He said the health authority is not understanding the community's concerns. 

"People don't want to be running around. People want to be staying home, staying safe, you know, keeping their loved ones, safe," Anderson said.