Nursing shortage to blame for Perth ER closure, says physician

Dr. Alan Drummond, an emergency room physician who works at the Perth hospital, says the recent COVID-19 outbreak did not necessarily cause the closure of their emergency department, but exacerbated a staffing shortage that existed before the pandemic.

Staffing challenges predated pandemic, says Dr. Alan Drummond

A sign affixed to a door tells people that a hospital emergency room is closed.
A sign at the hospital in Perth, Ont., directs people on July 2, 2022, to the emergency room in nearby Smiths Falls, Ont., instead. (Camille Kasisi-Monet/Radio-Canada)

UPDATE | On Thursday morning, the hospital announced the Perth ER will remain closed until next week at the earliest after it learned that more emergency department staff had contracted COVID-19 in the community.

Once it reopens it will only operate during the daytime until staffing stabilizes, Dr. Alan Drummond said on Wednesday.

UPDATE #2 | On Sunday, July 24, 2022, the emergency department reopened and returned to its regular hours of operation.

An emergency room physician in Perth, Ont., says he's "deeply concerned" after his community's hospital shut down the local ER Saturday morning.

In a release, the Perth and Smiths Falls District hospital said a COVID-19 outbreak at its Perth site had placed "yet another burden on our fragile staffing situation." 

The emergency department is slated to be closed for five days and won't reopen until Thursday at the earliest.

Remaining staff are being redirected to the ER at the hospital's campus in Smiths Falls, Ont., about 20 kilometres away. It continues to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the hospital said.

Dr. Alan Drummond, who works at the Perth hospital, said the outbreak did not necessarily cause the closure but simply exacerbated an existing staffing shortage.

The shortage of nurses began before the pandemic, Drummond told CBC Saturday, and has intensified over the last year.

He said his ER has shrunk from 15 nurses to five in the last few months, with the COVID-19 outbreak causing two of the remaining five to be sidelined.

"The nurses here have been complaining for years that they are overworked, that there's not enough staff, that they're not supported," he said.

Dr. Alan Drummond said the Perth emergency department has been dealing with a staffing crunch that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted)

Drummond said his department sees about 28,000 people per year, some from as far away as Peterborough, Ont. There's been an increasing amount of abuse and violence against nursing staff on a daily basis, he added, with some being sworn at, spit on and even punched.

All those factors, he said, have led many nurses to leave the industry altogether.

"I'm just holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed that nothing bad happens in the five days," Drummond said. 

"Let's hope we can commit to a brighter and better future going forward, because clearly, something has to change with the way we manage our nursing staff." 

An 'industry-wide crisis'

Last week, the hospital considered closing down the Perth ER overnight during the summer due to a lack of staff, but it quickly reversed its decision. 

"This is a human resource shortage," said Michael Cohen, president and CEO of the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital.

"The straw that broke the camel's back happened to be COVID illnesses amongst our staff."

On Thursday, the hospital learned that several staff had come down with COVID-19, Cohen said. He said there was "no other option" than to close the ER in Perth and redirect staff to the Smiths Falls site.

Cohen said it's the first time in his career he has seen full time vacancies across the organization, and for the most part, no applicants. 

A hospital with its sign in the foreground.
The emergency room at the Perth, Ont., hospital won't reopen until at least Thursday because too many workers are off sick. (Camille Kasisi-Monet/Radio-Canada)

"We've been doing everything we possibly can, including bringing in agency staff, offering financial incentives and working creatively ... to try and move staff around and maximize staffing," Cohen said.

"And when I talked to my colleagues across the province, everybody seemed to be experiencing the same difficulty," he said. "This is an industry-wide crisis." 

The hospital plans to reopen the Perth site's ER on July 7 for 12 hours during the day as they begin to resume normal operations.

Cohen said they won't be back to full operations until the week of July 11.


Rachelle Elsiufi

Host of CBC News Ottawa at 11

Rachelle Elsiufi is a journalist with CBC Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter with Citynews in Edmonton. You can reach her at