Merritt residents gathered once more over the weekend to voice their frustration and concerns over the repeated closures of the city’s emergency room facilities.

The rally held in Central Park on Sunday, Oct. 1 drew a crowd of concerned residents and local leaders who continue to demand a solution to the ongoing healthcare crisis in the city. 

The closure of Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency room has become a distressing pattern for residents, with the facility being temporarily closed five times in September due to staff shortage.

In 2023, there have been 14 closures reported by the Interior Health Authority at the hospital.

These repeated closures have left residents anxious and concerned about their access to timely medical care.

 Georgia Clement, rally organizer, addressed her concern.

“I think one closure is too many, you know, that could be the day when people or someone has a catastrophic accident on that highway. You know, we can’t plan for that,” she said.

On Sept. 28, during a press conference to launch this year’s respiratory illness vaccination campaign, Health Minister Adrian Dix was questioned about what is being done to fix the ER closures across towns along the Coquihalla Highway.

Dix said that the ministry is working on attracting a larger base of doctors and nurses, like Grand Forks, with incentive programs. He also mentioned that the ministry is working closely with the City of Merritt and recognizes that the City is working closely with Interior Health on housing initiatives.

“It’s an absolute priority. We do not want to see any emergency rooms closed,” Minister Dix said at the conference.

Also present at the rally, Mayor Mike Goetz called the situation “tiring and frustrating.”

“It’s tiring that we’re continually out here doing this (a rally) every time we have a closure,” he said. 

Goetz, who recently went to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention from Sept. 18 to Sept. 22 in Vancouver, had a chance to meet with Minister Dix and express his concerns on the frequent emergency room closures.

“They (the ministry) are aware of the fact that we’ve been shut down as maintenance, but they have told us we’re a priority,” the mayor said. “I don’t not believe that we’re not (a priority). It’s just that I need to see what that priority means … because right now it’s not looking like we are a priority.”

Goetz also mentioned that the City’s sub-committee to address the ER closures will be created in October, with their first meeting gathering all council, fire chief and Interior Health Authority representatives.

“What we do hope to achieve (is) that we’re all on the same page,” he said. “With whatever problems they’re having, we can help deal with it, we can understand it, we can explain it. Right now, we don’t know what the problems they’re having. We need to have information sharing between us both so we can get our hospital in a better shape.”

The Herald reached out to Interior Health regarding the ER crisis and the health authority said it’s “committed to doing everything possible to avoid any interruptions to normal services.”

Over an email, Kathy Doull, executive director at Interior Health West, said the authority is doing “everything possible to fill all shifts and only make changes to our services as a last possible resort.”

Doull also mentioned in the email that IH clinical operations leaders are in frequent and ongoing communication with Mayor Goetz on local health services and new recruitment opportunities.

She mentioned that active recruitment is underway for physicians and staff through implementing a targeted social media and marketing campaign to work in Merritt, a partnership with GoHealthBC to recruit registered nurses – with three nurses who recently just started in late September – and through advertising with Health Match BC.

“Interior Health recognizes Merritt is at the juncture of highly travelled highway systems, making the emergency department a vital and critical part of the community, and we are committed to delivering stable health service for all residents in the area.”