WINNIPEG – Health Canada says it may have to close some medical stations in remote northern Manitoba reserves struggling with a severe flu outbreak if it can’t find more nurses willing to work there.
The department has put out a tender for nurses to work in 24 isolated reserves, saying it is having “great difficulty” finding nurses to work up North.
Dozens of people from some of those reserves have been airlifted and hospitalized with severe flu-like symptoms, and some cases have been confirmed as swine flu.
“Health Canada is having great difficulty recruiting and retaining employed nurses in the nursing stations and two federal hospitals located in northern Manitoba on reserves,” the tender states.
“Without adequate service, the nursing stations and hospitals may have to close for periods of time which could result in severe medical liability.”
In an emailed statement, a spokeswomen for Health Canada said the tender has nothing to do with the current flu situation.
“The call for renewal is issued several months in advance of the expiry of the current standing offer to ensure that there is no interruption in relief nursing service,” Christelle Legault said.
“To date, Health Canada has sufficient staff to meet the needs of First Nations communities in Manitoba.”
But the prospect of losing the clinics at the frontline of Manitoba’s severe flu outbreak horrifies those grappling with the illness.
“If they ever close the nursing station, I hope they open a hospital,” said Garden Hill Chief David Harper. “It’s tragic. The kind of service that we’re getting up here is totally unacceptable.”
Some 38 people have been airlifted out of Garden Hill First Nation in the last month, including an 18-month-old boy – the community’s first confirmed case of swine flu. The reserve of 4,000 residents only has three full-time nurses.
There are 56 cases of swine flu in Manitoba, but the outbreak seems to be hitting aboriginals especially hard.
Health officials say most of the 26 people who are on hospital ventilators due to flu are aboriginal. Many have been airlifted out of a remote area 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg that has fewer than 10,000 residents.
But even Harper said he’s not sure he would want to work as a nurse in Garden Hill.
The nursing station’s equipment is old or broken and nurses don’t have the support of a full medical team as they would have in an urban clinic, he said.
“We are struggling to get some service up here. I’m starting to lose confidence in the (federal) minister of health.”
Glen Sanderson with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said closing any nursing stations would exacerbate a growing medical crisis. Nursing stations are the first – and often only – line of defence for remote reserves, he said.
“It would be devastating to the community. It’s always the ones that are remote. They would be devastated. There is no other health facility around. There are no other health providers around.”
Contracting out nursing services for northern reserves is a short-term solution, Sanderson added. Ottawa has to do more to improve health care for remote communities, including training people from the reserve to work as nurses, he suggested.
Some nurses who work in northern Manitoba say closing the nursing stations is short-sighted and will cost taxpayers more in the end.
Nicole Harder, who has worked in the region for 12 years, said it takes a special set of medical skills to work on northern reserves.
Nurses also have to be willing to work in isolation and leave their families for months at a time, she pointed out.
And at a time when the community is being hit hard by severe flu, nurses are on call working virtually around the clock, Harder said. While hospitals can cope with being short-staffed, it’s not that easy for nursing stations with only two employees, she said.
But without the nursing stations, many more people would have to be airlifted out of a community at a cost of millions.
“You don’t take chances,” said Harder, who also teaches nursing at the University of Manitoba. “When in doubt, send them out.”