It’s an unprecedented situation in Saskatoon Health Region, and the province as a whole.

Evacuees from Northern Saskatchewan have been living in Saskatoon for over two weeks now while forest fires threaten their homes and communities. Over 500 are staying at evacuation centres set up at the SaskTel Sports Centre and the Henk Ruys Soccer Centre. Over 900 more are living in hotels in Saskatoon, and about 1,500 are staying with family and friends in Saskatoon and area. A small number of long-term care evacuees have been relocated to Parkridge Centre and Saskatoon Extendicare facilities.

Interior of the Henk Ruys Soccer Centre in Saskatoon

Hundreds of evacuees from northern Saskatchewan are staying at soccer centres in Saskatoon, as well as hotels.

While Social Services is leading the charge on the evacuation with support from the Red Cross, Saskatoon Health Region is doing its part to look after the health needs of the evacuees. In doing so, for this long and for this number of people, the Region is heading into uncharted territory.

“There hasn’t been this widespread of a response and need in the history of our Health Region, or our province,” said Lori Frank, Director of Enterprise Risk Management for Saskatoon Health Region. “The longevity of this evacuation will make it a challenge to deal with.”

At first, the response from the Region wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“Typically, when there’s an evacuation on a much smaller scale, we ensure that Primary Health Care and Public Health Resources are in place,” Frank said. “So we started with those key areas, including having the Primary Care Health Bus attend the evacuation centres in the first few days.”

The bus was there to help anyone with health issues access care, prescriptions or medications they were forced to leave behind.

However, when it became clear that the evacuees were going to have to remain in Saskatoon for a longer period of time than ever before, the Region put together a special team to provide them with health services.

“We had to regroup and be flexible with the support we are providing,” said Frank.

The Region set up a manager to rove between all evacuee sites – the hotels and the soccer centres – as well as clinical support personnel at each evacuation centre. Doctors are setting up a clinic at each centre for a portion of each day, seven days a week, with support of clinical staff. An evacuation director has also been assigned to rove between the sites.

“We’ve set up this structure and we’re trying to sustain it,” said Frank. “What we’re doing basically comes down to coordinating health services for people who have been evacuated, as well as troubleshooting and problem solving when new things come up. We can help people on site, connect them to a community service, or help them access acute care. We’re trying to do some of the more basic care, assessment and treatment actually at the sites so as not to overburden mediclinics or emergency rooms in Saskatoon.”

As of Friday of last week, there were 997 evacuees in hotels. These evacuees are those who have higher health needs and cannot stay in the evacuation centre – people like moms with newborn babies, or elders with diabetes or breathing problems.

“A significant number of them need some kind of health service,” said Frank, “so we set up two roving nurse practitioners, a group of continuing care aides, and a nurse to visit the nine different hotels where they are being housed. They are visiting each hotel every day and providing support.”

Public Health has also had a role to play in helping the evacuees, mainly around surveillance of health risks, ensuring any possible outbreaks or public health risks are looked after.

Exterior of Henk Ruys Soccer Centre in Saskatoon.

Henk Ruys Soccer Centre in Saskatoon.

Mental Health supports have also been put in place for the evacuees as the situation drags on, and they remain away from their homes. The Region has been working in partnership with Health Canada and local tribal councils to pool resources around the mental health needs of the evacuees. The Region is also speaking to Health Canada about helping with the clinics at the evacuation sites.

“We’re trying our best to use everyone’s resources,” Frank said.

To that end, health employees from other health regions who have been evacuated to Saskatoon are being offered work. For instance, an employee in Mental Health and Addictions from a northern health region is providing support in the evacuation centres, as are three Continuing Care Assistants.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Frank. These employees need to work, there are people from their regions here that they can work with, and Saskatoon needs the help.

“It’s always amazing how partnerships come together in these situations. I think what you see is, although we’re there providing help and our staff are there to focus on health, it’s everyone chipping in to help each other,” said Petrina McGrath, Vice President, People, Practice and Quality for the Region, who spent a lot of time at the evacuation centres over the past week as the vice-president on call.

Returning-to-work clinical staff have also volunteered to work at the evacuation centres.

“They’re doing really, really good work,” said Frank. “They’re in the clinics with doctors, and doing what needs to be done.”

The Region staff involved in these efforts have all volunteered to step away from their regular duties to help with the evacuees. However, no gaps have been left when it comes to service to the residents of Saskatoon Health Region.

Sheila Achilles, Director of Primary Health Care, who is on a rotation with three other directors to act as the evacuation director, believes in the importance of staff volunteering.

“It’s all of our jobs to care for these people. They are guests in our community,” she said. “We really need people to volunteer, more employees to help in whatever ways they can. We’re looking for people who are the right fit for this type of work, which can be a little chaotic at times.”

Some real good has come out of the work done so far, she added.

“We have developed some fantastic partnerships with our community physicians and acute care colleagues. They are all stepping up to the plate to help,” said Achilles. “Health Canada and the northern health regions have all offered their assistance as well, and we are working with them, and our own senior leadership has shown great support for our efforts. I think we have a good structure in place.”

The structure is working for the moment, Frank agrees, but she is concerned about being able to sustain all these services over the long term.

“We will be challenged over time,” Frank said. “We are talking about the sustainability of the processes we have in place, and the supports we are providing. This is why we are looking to our partners for help. It’s in our best interest to support the evacuees at these sites, and the experience has been very positive so far. But it’s a lot of extra people, and a seven-day-a-week operation.”