Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital combined its emergency department, intensive care unit, and emergency obstetrics unit on Christmas Eve because too few staff were available.
Meanwhile, healthcare workers described hospital staff being told to isolate when not working but keep showing up for duty over Christmas after possible exposure to Covid-19 on December 19.
The merger of the three units, which the NWT’s health authority said lasted from December 23’s night shift to the end of December 24’s day shift, is the latest front-line manifestation of a staffing crisis that shows no sign of easing.
Two longtime workers familiar with hospital operations said the merger was the first of its kind they had seen in Yellowknife.
By email on Wednesday, NWT health authority spokesperson David Maguire confirmed the units were merged “to ensure adequate coverage for a very limited time due to sick call for staff within the units.”
Maguire said such a merger was the established backup option if too many staff call in sick, adding it “allows for the best patient care in all three areas in a low staffing situation.”
There is no suggestion that patient care was compromised during the affected shifts. The hospital was understood to have a relatively low number of patients at the time. The units have since returned to normal operating practices.
The Christmas Eve staff shortage comes after the NWT’s health minister acknowledged morale within the territory’s healthcare network is critically low and vacancies unsustainably high. Workers say those issues reach well beyond Stanton, which is the NWT’s main hospital, to other clinics and facilities.
Until at least February, expecting families are being redirected from Yellowknife to Edmonton as there are too few staff to safely run Stanton’s obstetrics unit. The switch, which is costing the NWT government hundreds of thousands of dollars, is so far the most tangible consequence of the hospital’s inability to recruit and retain enough workers.
At the moment, only emergency deliveries are being carried out in Yellowknife – but even that ability is under threat. Maguire said there had been “a handful of shifts throughout the holiday period where we have only been able to secure one nurse per shift” in obstetrics.
That is not a safe staffing level, Maguire wrote. He said merging obstetrics with the intensive care unit and emergency department meant the one obstetrics nurse on shift could be supported by other units’ staff in a crisis. (The Christmas Eve staff shortage is understood to have affected all three units involved.)
Isolate, but work
Healthcare workers familiar with hospital operations separately described Covid-19 exposure involving a staff member on December 19.
Requesting anonymity to discuss a subject about which they were not authorized to speak, two workers said some hospital staff were subsequently advised to isolate over Christmas but continue reporting for duty.
They said a request that staff work while otherwise isolating was unusual and further demonstrated the scarcity of workers over the holiday season, when many people leave Yellowknife to visit family members elsewhere, leaving essential services running with little to no backup.
Maguire, by email, did not directly address questions about the number of staff affected or confirm specific details.
He wrote: “Certain Stanton staff were thoroughly assessed for isolation exemption for essential workers. They were required to monitor for symptoms and receive frequent testing. This is consistent with existing procedure for this type of exemption.”
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.