The leader of the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, President and CEO Ray Racette, says he’s nervous heading into the summer season with an ongoing and worsening staff shortage and the potential for future spikes of COVID-19 cases in the community.

In a conference with regional media members on June 13, Racette fielded questions related to the hospital’s staff shortage, which the hospital has recently described as ‘critical’, especially in the Emergency Room department.

“It’s very, very tight,” said Racette. “We have serious problems with staffing. Everyone does. But we could easily have something spread here and it would take away two, three or four services quite easily with our thin staffing. That becomes our vulnerability now. How do we maintain health at a time of shortage?”

He says over all of the hospital’s many departments, they’re seeing an over 40 per cent shift vacancy on average due to the shortage, with about 30 to 40 shifts per month not being filled. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital says its shift vacancy rate ranged from 7 to 10 per cent.

Racette explains that staff are regularly dealing with high volumes of patients while working overtime and giving up vacation time to cover any vacancies, and that’s if they’re even able to work due to COVID-19.

Between December 1, 2021, to now, Racette says about 200 staff members, or about one-third of the hospital’s entire workforce, have been off work due to a COVID-19 infection. As well, an additional 130 staff members were exposed to the virus and forced to undergo an isolation period during this time.

As a result of the vacancies, as many as 9 hospital beds were forced to close down at various times.

The hospital’s Intensive Care Unit may have been hit the hardest during the pandemic, as it has closed down as many as 36 times for at least 12 hours since September 2021, and the department is still dealing with a 60 per cent vacancy rate.

As a result, an unknown number of ICU patients have had to be transferred to Winnipeg or Thunder Bay. Racette did not have the statistic on-hand during the meeting but said it ‘wasn’t many’ local patients. Of note, these ICU closures were not publicized to the community when they took place.

Red Lake’s hospital was forced to close the doors to its emergency room early in March due to their ongoing physician shortage, and Chair of the Northwest Regional Chief of Staff Council, Dr. Sara Van Der Loo, has said every small hospital in the north is at risk of temporarily closing due to a lack of staff.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information says Ontario ranks seventh among provinces in the number of family doctors per 100,000 patients, with the shortage being notably worse in northern and rural communities like those in northwestern Ontario.

That’s why Racette says he’s ‘nervous’ going into this summer season, but notes he is still confident in the abilities of his extremely hard-working staff.

“We will do everything humanly possible to keep our services open. Just trying to maintain our services and to keep our emerge open, there’s no question there are heroic efforts just to keep these services open. That’s the effort.”

“We will do everything possible to keep our services open. We hope that we can. But people could be waiting longer for service. The truth is, we’re constrained on resources. We’ll be white-knuckled for the entire summer. These are challenges that we’ve never faced before.”

Racette adds that simply recruiting more healthcare staff is easier said than done, as staffing shortages have been seen throughout Canada and the community, especially in the healthcare field and in Kenora’s primary care clinics.

“The challenge with everyone getting short at the same time, your normal strategy of taking from who ‘has’ in order to help with the gap, when everyone is short, even your sources have dried up. That’s the challenge.”

So, in an effort to help end the ongoing staff shortage in Kenora’s hospital and without much ability to hire local healthcare staff, Racette says they’re looking at all of their options moving forward. He notes even locum and physician networks have dried up as well, as staff have been needed elsewhere.

These include lobbying the government for higher wages for emergency room workers, creating benefits for part-time staff, new self-scheduling models for a stronger work/life balance, the use of visiting healthcare workers who may pick up the odd shift while in the community, and more.

One option that Racette spent much time on was the ability to bring-in physicians from neighbouring Manitoba who could fill shifts in Kenora. But, as the President and CEO says, there are a variety of licensing issues as doctors try to cross provincial borders.

“We’ve reached out to people that were part of the networks of our clinicians. We’re hoping that they will consider it. It is less than what they’d make if they just practiced in Manitoba. But they know we need assistance. Hopefully, some of them will come forward.”

Overall, Racette says these issues are expected to continue in Kenora for the foreseeable future with no immediate fix in sight. He adds the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, as healthcare experts are predicting another spike of COVID-19 cases in Ontario in the fall.

Racette adds that even if you’re fully vaccinated like the majority of his staff are with the hospital’s mandatory vaccination policy still in place, anyone can contract the virus and become ill.

“Many people think the pandemic is over. The truth is, COVID-19 is still with us. It’s really important for us to do everything possible to keep patients and staff safe in our setting, so we don’t make things worse for people. We’re nervous. Once you take measures away. How do you bring them back?”

That’s why he says the hospital made the decision to keep its mask mandate in place, even though Ontario removed mask requirements in healthcare settings on June 11. The hospital is reminding residents that still will continue to:

- Screen all patients, clients and visitors for symptoms of COVID-19,
- Require all individuals entering the hospital to wear a mask,
- Require all visitors to show proof of vaccination,

Kenora’s All Nations Health Partners is asking all residents to be kind, patient and understanding when dealing with overworked healthcare workers, especially as the hospital reports incidents of physical and verbal abuse to staff rose by 300 per cent in 2021 compared to 2020.