Agency nurse shortage leaves 'unacceptable' holiday closures at rural emergency rooms

A shortage of nurses has left several rural Manitoba emergency departments closed over the holidays.

Emergency services, in-patient beds closed, forcing long drives for treatment

The shared emergency department between Boissevain and Deloraine has been closed for the holidays. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

A shortage of nurses has left several rural Manitoba emergency departments closed over the holidays.

Prairie Mountain Health, which services a wide swath of western and southwestern Manitoba, currently has eight rural emergency departments closed, leaving some communities with no open hospital and long drives to access urgent care.

"It's all had to do with vacancies that we currently have, both in nursing and in diagnostics," said Brian Schoonbaert, the region's CEO. "The issue is that we haven't been able to find agency nurses to pick up those spaces.

"There's a lot of openings that agency nurses can choose from and, unfortunately, we weren't able to pick up sufficient people during this period." 

Some facilities, such as Roblin, Shoal Lake and Souris, are closed longer term due to physician shortages, according to Schoonbaert. But he says others, incuding Boissevain, Deloraine, Melita and Treherne, are due to nursing shortages.

Staffing shortages have also left the ER in Ste. Rose closed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. daily. 

"It is unacceptable," said Judy Swanson, mayor of the southern Manitoba municipality of Boissevain-Morton, located about 75 kilometres south of Brandon.  "It was my understanding that we had sufficient staff to cover Christmas. I'm not sure what happened." 

Prairie Mountain Health said both the emergency department and in-patient beds had to close due to nursing shortages. 

Long distance to other facilities

Swanson says not only did the closure result in patients being moved to other facilities, but it also left area residents and highway travellers without a close facility. 

"It's a huge concern," she said. "We're on No. 10 highway. There is no other health facility from the Peace Garden border, which is a 24-hour port [of entry], right through to Brandon.

"We're the only hospital on that whole highway, so we've had a blizzard, we've had storms, we've had things happening in our community and nowhere to go."

Swanson says Boissevain has shared emergency services with Deloraine, a town about 40 kilometres west of the town, for some time. But Deloraine is now also closed, leaving the only options Killarney to the east, or Brandon to the north. 

Schoonbaert says he understands the frustrations and concerns, and the region has tried to take the distances people travel into account when determining which facilities to keep open and which to staff. 

"Certainly this is not ideal," he said. "This is not what we want to do." 

The Prairie Mountain Health region has informed residents about temporary service suspensions to some emergency departments. This as the number of COVID-19 cases in the province continues to climb everyday. Brian Schoonbaert is the Chief Executive officer of the Prairie Mountain Health region. He spoke with Radio Noon host Marjorie Dowhos.

Swanson says staff at the local hospital have also been sent to other facilities to help with staffing issues elsewhere. 

Schoonbaert says there simply aren't enough people to go around,  and agency staff might find shifts in urban facilities more appealing, especially during the holidays.

"We have been relying a lot on agency staff and during this time of year," he said. "They have so much to choose from and plus people are tired," he said. "There's no doubt everyone is picking up fewer shifts than they have maybe been over the last number of months." 

Recruitment efforts

Swanson says she would like to see more money put into local recruitment. 

"If you're putting that kind of money into agency nurses, maybe we really need to look at it," she said. "We've been using agency nurses for years here and in many, many, many hospitals around Manitoba. 

Boissevain, Man., is a town located about 220 km southwest of Winnipeg, near the Canada-U.S. border. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"I would like to see them really concentrate on staffing in the rural areas … there's been no promotion in our high schools to see if any of our young people would go into nursing," she said, adding that municipalities like hers offer incentives and funding for local people to go into careers like nursing. 

Schoonbaert says recruitment efforts are ongoing, with more to come in the new year. 

"We have been doing a lot of recruitment," he said. "But unfortunately, the numbers leaving are greater than what we can recruit long term. 

We're hoping that the internationally educated nurses maybe fill some of those places in the in the near future. But really, there's not much we can do." 

Swanson says she has been assured Bossevain's hospital will reopen at the beginning of January. She has a meeting scheduled with health region leaders and human resources early in the new year.


Riley Laychuk


Riley Laychuk is a news anchor and reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. He was previously based at CBC's bureau in Brandon for six years, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback:

With files from Marjorie Dowhos


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