HHHS announces ‘likely’ emergency department closures

By Sue Tiffin

Emergency departments at hospitals in Haliburton County could be closed during certain hours and days in the coming weeks. In an open letter to residents of Haliburton County, Carolyn Plummer, president and CEO of Haliburton Highlands Health Services, said ongoing challenges of staff shortages could lead to the closures, and that the situation could “persist for some time.”
“We want to share with you some of the obstacles facing our organization and the impacts it may have on you,” wrote Plummer, on behalf of the HHHS board of directors. “Our continued challenges around staffing and nursing capacity mean that, in the coming weeks, it is very likely we will need to reduce service at one of our emergency departments, including closures during certain hours and days.”

Plummer said the letter was being shared to prepare residents, “as much as possible for this in
advance.” She noted that HHHS had been speaking about staffing challenges throughout the
pandemic, but that “health human resource shortages pre-date the pandemic,” and exist provincially
as well as throughout the country and world.
“It has been a particular problem in rural communities, and there are other locations in Ontario that
have been forced to reduce services due to a shortage of nursing staff,” wrote Plummer. “This has
been compounded by more typical staffing challenges, including retirements, injuries, parental
leaves, and health issues, as well as factors influenced by the pandemic, including burnout and

“Although we have cast a net far and wide, seeking support from staffing agencies across the
country and other healthcare organizations across Ontario, health human resource issues are
everywhere,” wrote Plummer. “If we are unable to find adequate staffing, we will have to close one
of the emergency departments during a set number of hours and days. This situation may persist for
some time and we may not be able to forecast when we can resume full operation at both
emergency departments.”
No decision has been made yet about which emergency department will need to reduce services.
“Patient and staff safety has been and will continue to be at the forefront of our discussions,” wrote
Plummer. “We will also continue to be led by our values of compassion, accountability, integrity, and
respect. To make this difficult decision, we will consider typical volumes of patient visits to each
emergency department; current staff schedules, gaps, and staffing models; the geographic location
of each Emergency Department in relation to communities across Haliburton County; and feedback
from our partners, including but not limited to the Ministry of Health, Ontario Health East, and
Haliburton County Paramedic Service.”

If the situation continues and HHHS reduces service at one of the emergency departments,
Plummer said this decision will be communicated to the community as soon as possible, no later
than 48 hours in advance of a planned reduction of hours or closure. However, HHHS will, said
Plummer, “continue to do everything we can to find, hire, and train the staff needed to keep both our
emergency departments open, and explore all possible support options and opportunities.”
She asked that those in the community refer qualified staff to HHHS, noting permanent, full-time
positions are available, as well as part-time and casual positions and that “as much as possible,
access care through your family doctor or nurse practitioner whenever possible.”
“While this is not the situation anyone wanted to face, we are heartened to know that our incredible
team at HHHS, our local health and emergency service providers, and the community as a whole
will do all we can to keep each other healthy and safe,” said Plummer.
Plummer stressed the current staff shortage is not related to the vaccination policy in place at
HHHS, that the staffing issues had been building and HHHS had been trying to deal with them for
some time.
Initially Plummer had said at a Sept. 23 board meeting that HHHS would not have a vaccine
mandate in part because the requirement for mandatory vaccines might lead to even more drastic
staffing shortages. That decision was reversed after the provincial government, on Oct. 1,
announced that COVID-19 vaccinations would be mandatory for all long-term care home staff in the

“The vaccine policy process is one that has evolved over time; the decisions have been difficult, and have
not been made lightly,” Plummer told the Times in October in response to the change. “When the initial
iteration of our vaccination policy was implemented, our vaccination rate was lower – i.e., fewer staff
were vaccinated; also at that time, we were facing significant staffing challenges. Like several other
smaller hospitals and healthcare organizations, we were concerned that a vaccine mandate could result in
the need to reduce or even close some of our services. We also knew the policy would evolve as the
overall situation across the province evolved. At this point in time, more and more healthcare
organizations are mandating vaccines, and the Ministry of Long-Term Care has now mandated vaccines
for all long-term care staff, including those at HHHS who staff our two long-term care homes. Based on
the need to support equity across the organization while also creating a safe environment for our patients,
residents, clients, and staff, we updated our policy accordingly. At the time of the most recent policy
revision, our staff vaccination rate has improved and our staffing challenges are less acute than they were
several weeks ago.”