After sending many expecting families south to give birth for more than two months, Stanton Territorial Hospital’s obstetrics unit is now fully reopened to all NWT residents, health minister Julie Green said in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.
Nunavut residents who would typically come to the NWT to give birth are still being sent to Edmonton for the time being, according to Green. She said the NWT Health and Social Services Authority is “working to resume services also for these individuals as soon as possible.”
“Starting immediately, we are resuming labour and delivery services for all NWT residents,” Green said.
“This means that any resident who is due to deliver a child can expect their delivery to happen in the Northwest Territories starting today.”
In response to questions from Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, Green said any expecting families currently in Edmonton should speak to their healthcare provider to determine whether they can return to the NWT to give birth.
Since December 10, many northern families have been sent to Alberta to give birth because the hospital in Yellowknife did not have enough staff to safely operate the obstetrics unit. Emergency services remained open for pre-term births and urgent prenatal assessments.
The territorial government initially said birthing services at Stanton would be suspended until at least mid-February because too few staff were available as a result of a national nursing shortage and high demand across the country.
Some employees at the hospital also told Cabin Radio staff kept leaving the unit because it was inadequately managed, which placed workers in dangerous and stressful situations.
Late last month, the health authority announced its reopening plan for the obstetrics unit. That included a phased approach where the first step would see the unit offer services to NWT residents scheduled for a cesarean section operation or having their second or subsequent child, alongside the continuation of emergency services. That was expected to take place between February 22 to March 31.
Green said on Tuesday a more “rapid reopening” was possible because of the position the unit is currently in.
David Maguire, a spokesperson for the health authority, told Cabin Radio on Monday services are able to resume as the department has secured staff for the upcoming months. In a news release on Tuesday, the authority said staff were secured through agencies and casual contracts, while the hospital is pursuing indeterminate full-time candidates who have expressed interest.
In December, the territorial government estimated sending families south to give birth could cost the NWT half a million dollars in hospital and physician fees. Health minister Julie Green said the entire birthing crisis was expected to cost $803,000.
Cabin Radio has requested an updated figure on those costs.
Green on Tuesday, acknowledged the reduction in services has impacted families.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “I want to thank all the individuals and families who travelled to deliver their children to create space for emergency and urgent care at Stanton during this period of low staffing.”
“Your sacrifice helped us ensure continued care for those who needed it locally in urgent and emergency situations.”
Green said the recent shutdown of the obstetrics unit was the first since 2002.
“In other words, once in 20 years – it’s a rare event,” she said.
Stanton will “closely monitor staffing levels”
According to the health authority, Stanton will work to ensure “adequate staffing in this area” by working on recruitment; pursuing indeterminate staff, casual and agency nurses; and training and developing local staff to gain specialized skills.
“NTHSSA leadership will also work hard to ensure current staff have their concerns heard and addressed,” the news release states.
“Retaining the great staff within the system is even more critical than attracting new talent.”
The authority said Stanton will be “closely monitor staffing levels” and if they become a concern again, services may need to be adjusted.
Green said the department is doing “everything possible” to prevent further service reductions. She said, however, that the national nursing shortage and Covid-19’s impact on healthcare staff are still impacting the NWT.
“Current staffing levels will ensure safe care for our patients and clients, however, if there is any point in the future where staffing levels are limited and safe care is not possible, we will adjust services as necessary,” she said.