With a shortage of nurses, health centre services in Nunavut might be drastically scaled back this summer.

“We are forecasting complete closures in 12 communities between June and September due to critical nursing shortages,” said John Main, minister of health, in the legislative assembly June 13.

“The Department of Health is actively trying to mitigate reduced services and prevent projected complete health centre closures,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, we’ve been applying a variety of mitigation strategies to prevent the disruption of health services due to staff shortages. Unfortunately, there continue to be multiple vacancies which lead to either reduced health services, or emergency services.”

Main was responding to a question from Amittuq MLA Joelie Kaernerk, who asked which communities the health centre closures would affect. But Main wouldn’t divulge.

“It’s changing from week to week,” said the minister. “Rather than list out the names of the communities and the dates here in the House, I can tell the member that in the community, notification will be given to the residents regarding either reduced services or complete closure in advance.”

Kaernerk responded through interpretation, “That’s a lot of communities. What is the Department of Health going to do?”

Main said he regrets that this has to happen and it’s due to the lack of nurses.

“In terms of dealing with complete closure in the communities, which I believe was the member’s question, we will have two paramedics on site, as well as support staff,” said Main. “We’ll have out-of-territory virtual support to remote triage cases. In the communities with complete closures, the services will be limited to emergent, life-threatening care only. We do have additional resources to put towards those communities, such as virtual nurse practitioners, virtual walk-in clinics and virtual telephone triage, as well as one- to three-day scheduled clinics run by a doctor and a community health nurse. We have plans in place to continue trying to meet the needs, even during a complete closure.”

Kaernerk noted that those communities would likely go through challenging times during the closures, asking again for any clarity on which communities would be affected.

“Will my two communities of Iglulik and Sanirajak not be affected by the closures,” asked Kaernerk through interpretation. “The minister stated that there are plans to do work by phone and virtually. I would like to ask the minister if he can assure me that my constituents of Iglulik and Sanirajak will not be affected by the closures.”

Main responded that Iglulik would be, but not Sanirajak, again noting the burnout nurses have felt.

“The communities have grown considerably, and as the Department of Health, we have to look into the future, to a longer term to try to get a real handle on the workload that our staff are facing in some of these communities,” said Main. “That would mean bringing on additional staff to try to spread the burden so that our staff are not getting burnt out, so that we’re retaining more indeterminate staff, which in the longer term will benefit everyone in Nunavut, in terms of better health services. That is, I believe, the root of what we’re dealing with, along with a worldwide shortage of health professionals.”

Chris Puglia, manager of communications with the Department of Health, told Kivalliq News in an email that the department has been able to avoid all tentatively scheduled closures to date, which is why no specific community announcements had been made by June 24.

“We have committed to announcing all communities with confirmed closures two weeks prior to them being closed,” wrote Puglia. “So far, we have not had to close a health centre as we have been able to ensure adequate staffing was available. Currently, there isn’t a tentative closure within the two-week announcement timeline.”

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