Gobsmacked. That’s pretty much the reactions of Nova Scotians to the news that the water at Halifax’s Centennial Building is so dangerous that not only can’t you drink it, you can’t even use it to wash your hands! Furthermore, it may contain Legionnaire’s bacteria!
If that wasn’t shocking enough, we have only learned that this problem has existed for 30 years! Capital Health administrators, staff and the Department of Health and Wellness may have known about this problem, but the general public hasn’t. Twenty three years ago when one of our an elderly relatives was hospitalized there we were not told to avoid using the water. Seven years ago another family member was there for surgery. There was no warning to us not to drink or wash with the water. And five months ago a friend was there for major surgery. Again, there were no warnings, advisories or signs about the water conditions.
How can this be? Two years ago there was a hint that the building had on-going water problems, but the way Capital Health treated that news did not suggest this was a three-decades long problem. It sounded like a temporary hiccup that was being addressed.
How could this water problem go on for so long? Was Capital Health waiting for the funding fairy to show up and make it all better? How have successive governments allowed it to continue? If this were a hotel, apartment or office building the Department of Health – we hope – would have closed it down until the owners corrected the problem. Why not Capital Health? Why are they exempt?
In the spring of 2011 Capital Health admitted that 30 percent of hospital infections could be eliminated if staff observed proper hand-washing protocols. Well, without clean, safe water how can staff properly wash their hands? And how many patients have been harmed because of this? Two years ago when the news hinted at water problems a Capital Health spokesman said, “patient care wasn’t impacted.”
What is the proof of that statement? What studies have the authority or Department of Health conducted to prove that?
Do we know if Capital Health’s infection and death rates are higher, lower or on-target for facilities of similar size and patient volumes?
Let’s not forget that patients in Nova Scotia’s hospitals have both been made more ill and died because of the spread of C.difficile. Its symptoms are similar to the Norovirus. And the best way to prevent that is through thorough cleaning of all surfaces in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities. A basic step in cleanliness and sterilization involves clean, hot water. That’s not something Capital Health can claim to provide.
Capital Health tells us that it would cost too much the fix the plumbing problem. Their solution is a new building. What are the numbers? There must be formal engineering studies and estimates for fixing the plumbing. What would it have cost 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago? And how much have they spent on bottled water over those 30 years and continue to spend each year? And how much do they pay the Halifax Water Commission each year for water they can’t use? Do any engineering studies factor in those costs, as well as the demolition and material disposal costs versus fixing the plumbing?
I understand that fixing the plumbing problem may strain one year’s budget, but in 30 years did no one think to establish a contingency fund where they set aside some money each year to put towards the problem?
It stretches common sense that a plumbing fix would cost more than a whole new building. There are costs to demolish a building and dispose of the materials. Plus there is the cost of temporary quarters for patients and treatments and construction of a new facility. Have any studies been done on the option of a total gut of the building and replacement of plumbing and wiring, and reconfiguration of interior spaces?
Capital Health wants a new building, but the Centennial building is not that old. Most buildings in this region are far older. The nearby Lord Nelson and Westin hotels are much older, get heavy usage and are in tip top condition. Why not the Centennial building?
Roger Taylor, The Chronicle Herald’s business columnist, says in a piece in Saturday’s newspaper that people in the construction industry say the real cost of a replacement hospital is closer to a billion dollars. That really would jeopardize patient care. If a building consumed that much money, what would be left for drugs, treatments and staff? Truro went 78% over budget and now staff complain of shortages, cutbacks and limitations on what they can do for patients.
And if so much money goes to one building, what would be left for the rest of the province? Equally concerning are hints on the IWK website that their facilities need replacement. Before we commit to one new building, we need to study both facilities and weigh any decision in light of two needs.
The Department of Health also needs to explain why it has allowed this situation to continue for so long?
It may be impolitic to say, but when I heard of the extent of the water problem I immediately thought of Westray and the poor oversight the mine received by government regulators.
Equally surprising is the seeming silence of the unions. How is this not a workplace safety issue? Why didn’t they raise it publicly for the sake of their members, members of other unions who may need treatment, as well as the safety of the public? This seems another curious case of unions protecting the failures of the health care executives. Ours is an upside down world.