Thunder Bay

COVID-19 could cause a health care staffing crisis in NWO, physician says

A family physician in northwestern Ontario says COVID-19 could overwhelm the healthcare system in the region even if hospitals never admit a single novel coronavirus case.

The need to send symptomatic staff home & test them is straining an already fragile system; Dr. Sarah Newbery

Dr. Sarah-Lynn Newbery has been practicing medicine along the north shore of Lake Superior for close to two decades. (

A family physician in northwestern Ontario says COVID-19 could overwhelm the healthcare system in the region even if hospitals never admit a single novel coronavirus case.

Healthcare resources were already fragile in the region prior to the pandemic, said Dr. Sarah Newbery, the Assistant Dean of Physician Workforce Strategy at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. 

But now that health care professionals must stay home, get COVID-19 tests and wait for results every time they or one of their family members show signs of possible illness, the system is on the verge of critical staff shortages.

"In northern Ontario, some communities are one physician illness away from an ER shift shutdown, one (ONE!) nurse away from cancelling obstet. care and cancelling a transfer," Newbery wrote on Twitter in mid-November.

The Marathon hospital has two x-ray technologists and two lab technologists, she told CBC by way of example.  If one gets sick, the other is on call 24/7.

"In some of our hospital settings, there are only two or three physicians in the community," she added. "If one of them has just finished an emerg shift, the other one is about to come on, and the third one is sick, we don't have much stretch capacity to bring a locum in urgently to cover that emerg shift, Newbery said.

"So as everyone becomes stretched a bit more thin with the demands of COVID-19, the fragility of our workforce really can impact clinical service."

The long-term solution to the crisis is for the region and the province to increase its focus on health human resources in order to create a more robust staffing system, Newbery said.  But that won't happen quickly enough to solve the current problem.

In the meantime, she said, individuals and governments both need to work to drive the COVID-19 caseload in the country down to zero.

"We need to continue with really vigilant hand hygiene, social distancing — I think we have become a bit complacent about that," Newbery said.

"We need to minimize our contact with one another as much as we can. And we need to, as individuals, keep track of who we have contact with so that if we have a test that's positive, we can notify people ourselves if public health is overwhelmed."

Newbery added, "We need to really strictly isolate when we have symptoms, even when we don't think what we have is COVID.... and we need as individuals to really understand our personal responsibility for minimizing the risk of transmission."

Health care professionals have been calling on the provinces to implement tighter restrictions on physical interactions in the wake of soaring case numbers — and Newbery believes society needs to take those calls seriously, she said.  Assessing restrictions on a region-by-region basis, as the province is currently doing, is a good approach, she added. 

Meanwhile, Newbery said, health care service providers can use several province-wide job portals in an effort to find staff to fill gaps. 

They can also turn to Health Force Ontario, which places locums around the province. 

However, she said, those resources are also stretched thin.

"As demand for physician support increases across the province, the pool of physicians from which we can draw to support northern Ontario decreases," she said.

"And so although those resources exist, they may become increasingly challenging to access as they did in the spring."