Nfld. & Labrador

Closure of Whitbourne emergency room could cost lives, paramedic says

Eastern Health says workers at the centre's emergency department would be temporarily diverted to help with Newfoundland and Labrador's COVID-19 pandemic response, advising patients to seek treatment elsewhere.

Service shut down to help with pandemic response

Anyone looking to enter the emergency room at the William H. Newhook Health Centre will see this sign, saying the area has been temporarily closed. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The temporary closure of emergency room services at the William H. Newhook Health Centre in Whitbourne isn't sitting well with the town's mayor and a paramedic in the community.

In a media release Friday, Eastern Health said workers at the centre's emergency department will be temporarily diverted to help with Newfoundland and Labrador's COVID-19 pandemic response.

Because of the closure, residents will need to travel to other facilities for treatment in Carbonear, Placentia and even as far as Clarenville and St. John's.

Paramedic Wade Smith says it will create a ripple effect of impacts across the region.

"As of right now every transport we do, regardless of how minor or major it is, we have to transport longer distances," the owner of Smith's Ambulance Services in Whitbourne said Tuesday.

Smith's Ambulance Services Owner Wade Smith says the closure of the emergency room in Whitbourne could cost lives. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"That means the ambulance is going to be out of the area for an extended period of time, beyond longer than what we would normally expect it to be.… You can't just call up and say, 'You got an ambulance?' That doesn't work anymore."

Eastern Health says family clinics, outpatient lab services and chemotherapy will continue at the community health clinic.

Smith said the business has three ambulance units but is limited to two on evenings and weekends. He's asked for more support but says it's been tough to get.

"The only answer that I got was, 'Oh, we don't think there's going to be any impact on you.'… It doesn't make me feel very confident that the people making the decision actually know what they are doing," he said.

Outside community use, Smith said, the emergency room is often used as a triage and treatment site for people in accidents on the province's highways.

"We service 14 to 16 communities. That's going to impact all those communities. It's going to impact health care here. I can see people who are really sick probably not making it. I can see this costing lives."

In response to questions from CBC, Eastern Health spokesperson Gina MacArthur said in an email that "the department is monitoring services and, should the need arise will consider available options to ensure appropriate resources and services are maintained."

My phone is rang off the wall. [Residents] are ready to protest this.- Hilda Whelan- Hilda Whelan

The news of the closure came as a surprise to Smith and Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whelan, who say they found out at the same time as everyone else through an emailed media release.

"There was no consultation with the town or especially with the fire department.… It didn't make sense to close down the Newhook clinic. Lives will be lost if this continues to stay down," Whelan said.

"Take someone in Bellevue: it's a 2½-hour drive to get to Placentia. Not only that, that ambulance is gone. If you've got two ambulances out on a 2½-hour hour drive, don't bother to phone if you're having a heart attack, 'cause you ain't getting anywhere."

Whitbourne Mayor Hilda Whalen says the town wasn't consulted by Eastern Health on the temporary closure of its emergency room. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Whelan says she hopes the closure won't serve as an excuse to permanently close the clinic, adding residents are ready to fight for their services should it come to it.

"My phone is rang off the wall. They are ready to protest this."

In the same email response to CBC, MacArthur said, "Emergency room services in Whitbourne will resume once resources are stabilized."

Services are difference between life and death: mayor

Meanwhile, residents in the community of St. Lawrence say they aren't happy with a reduction in services at the U.S. Memorial Health Centre.

The health centre faced a reduction in services over the weekend due to COVID-19-related staffing changes, something Mayor Kevin Pittman has been told are intermittent diversions.

"Normally we would get a call any time between one o'clock and four o'clock in the afternoon if the diversion was for that night or the next two nights or three nights, for example," he said.

Pittman said it's frustrating to see services affected, especially in rural areas where it can be tricky to travel for care.

"A lot of our seniors could need emergency care immediately and not have to go that 30 kilometres to get to Burin," he said.

"That half an hour, that 40 minutes, could make a great difference to life and death sometimes."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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