Health officials in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield west of Montreal say the Suroît Hospital emergency room has now reopened, after it was forced to shut down last night because of an acute staffing shortage.
Ambulances were diverted to the Anna-Laberge Hospital, more than half an hour away in Châteauguay.
The deputy managing director of the Montérégie-Ouest regional health board, Patrick Murphy-Lavallée, says there are normally 14 nurses on duty in the emergency room.
The hospital hasn't had that many nurses on the ER floor for weeks, though. Yesterday, when six out of 10 nurses scheduled to work called in sick from exhaustion, the hospital made the decision to stop taking in new patients.
Other hospital ERs in the province have been forced to close temporarily, curtail hours or are operating at more than 200 per cent capacity due to a lack of personnel since the beginning of the pandemic, as nurses decry how dismal working conditions have become.
Murphy-Lavallée said even upper management staff had to come in and lend a hand at the Suroît hospital.
"Our associate executive director was on the floor at the emergency room, giving care. We had managers, we had inhalation therapists, who were also giving care because we just simply did not have enough staff," he said.
Long shifts push nurses to exhaustion
Murphy-Lavallée blames the shortage on vacations and exhaustion due to the COVID pandemic.
But the head of the nurses union in the region, Mélanie Gignac, says the nursing shortage has been going on for months, and that the union has repeatedly warned hospital management this would happen.
"Yesterday, one of the nurses on staff had worked four 16-hour shifts in a row, so how are you going to be vigilant in giving care?" Gignac said.
She said the nurses who didn't show up were past the brink of exhaustion.
"When there's no one to replace you, what are you supposed to do?" Gignac asked.
Dr. Bernard Richard Jr., in charge of the hospital's emergency services, says workers are "in really deep distress."
In July, doctors for another health board, the CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, penned an open letter to Quebec's Health Ministry, warning of a breakdown of ER services because of staffing shortages caused by nurses fed up with pandemic working conditions.
The regional health board says it may ask managers to help out once again in order to keep the ER open tonight, but is urging people to avoid Suroît Hospital unless it is an absolute emergency.
20 per cent more nurses in private sector this year
According to Quebec's Order of Nurses, about 20 per cent more nurses are working for private agencies this year, suggesting hundreds have left the public sector since the start of the pandemic.
Opposition leader in the National Assembly have slammed Premier François Legault this week for not doing more to prevent a crisis in Quebec's ERs.
Legault says his government is putting a plan together to try and convince the nurses who left the public sector to come back.
"We are planning to have a very, very important plan. It will be costly, but we need to convince nurses to come back," he said."
"We cannot train new nurses in a few months. It takes years," Legault added.