Hospital Manager Linda O’Leary says other services are due to return on a ‘phased basis’ as soon as vital infrastructure is restored.
Although Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said that it will “take some time” before Wexford General Hospital is operational again, there were some green shoots on Thursday evening as Hospital Manager Linda O’Leary confirmed that maternity services will return at the fire-damaged hospital from tomorrow (Friday) morning, while outpatient appointments will recommence from Monday morning.
Ms O’Leary stated that considerable damage had been caused to the hospital building, not only from the fire itself, but from smoke and water. She confirmed that other services would return to the hospital on a “phased basis”, the timeframe of which will be decided by how quickly essential infrastructure can be restored.
Assessors and technical experts have been working on site all day alongside engineers in a bid to definitively state what caused the huge blaze, which ripped through the building from a fourth floor plant room shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday evening.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin has vowed that Wexford General will be rebuilt – and expanded – “from the ashes”, as both he and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly pledged the full support of the government.
“I would like to think that from the ashes of this fire we will rebuild properly in a modern context and create a 21st century facility in Wexford,” the Fianna Fáil leader said.
“We should take the opportunity in the contest of a rebuild to achieve additional capacity, as committed – because the population is growing,” he said.
The emergency situation at Wexford hospital following the disastrous fire on Wednesday also meant that the Government would look at the planning system to ensure a swift reconstruction, Mr Martin said.
The response would be one of “clarity, commitment and resources,” he said.
The Government was conscious of the need to get services back “as quickly as we can,” with a continuation of services from outpatients to diagnostics and right through to acute and emergency care. So it will be challenging, there's no point in saying it will not.”
But the response had to match the horrendous nature of the event, and the magnificent response that had prevented loss of life, he said.
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will visit Wexford General Hospital on Friday in the aftermath of the fire to see the extent of the damage and to meet the staff who assisted in the evacuation.
Having carried out his own inspection of the scene on Wednesday morning, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly noted that things could have been much worse.
"Thank God we’ve had no casualties and no fatalities,” he said. “As of now, we have no reports even of any injury for patients or the workforce from what has happened. I think we really need to acknowledge that extraordinary emergency response and secondly, the response from the wider healthcare service. Waterford, Kilkenny, Dublin hospitals, local nursing homes - they’ve all responded right through the night to free up capacity to take patients in.”
Well in excess of 200 patients were evacuated from the hospital overnight in what has been labelled “the biggest evacuation in the history of the health service”, with over 100 ambulances involved.
Minister Donnelly says that over half of the hospital’s inpatient beds are affected including maternity services and critical care.
"What we’ll see now is an assessment of the structural integrity of the hospital, the mechanical systems, electrical systems, machinery. It will take some time, I think, before we have an assessment of how quickly we can get the services back up and running and of course what it will cost.”
He added that the government will ensure that “all funding and other supports” will be made available right away to get the hospital back up and running.
Meanwhile, Clinical Lead at Wexford General Hospital Dr Obada Yousif reflected on what had been a chaotic 24 hours.
"This is the first incident of its kind and of this magnitude in the country,” he said. “We train to deal with major incidents and national disasters like this, but we’ve never had to deal with anything like this before.
"The response from the team within the hospital and the local community and the national team has been outstanding. The support from the National Ambulance Service and different hospitals and right up to Ministerial level has been amazing and we really appreciate it.”
With the Emergency Department (ED) at Wexford General now completely bypassed and people in need asked to present at neighbouring hospitals instead, the pressing question is when will Wexford General be operational again.
"It’s a fluid situation as we stand,” Dr Yousif said. “Technical assessors are on site assessing the damage and deciding which areas can be switched on safely. Once that happens, we’ll be in a better position to advise.
"As things stand, all emergencies are diverted to University Hospital Waterford. We hope to be in a position to re-establish some services very soon. ED will be under pressure for a while. We’re looking at ways to re-establish which areas of the emergency department can be opened safely. That would be initiatives like treat and discharge or a minor injuries unit, but we haven’t finalised anything yet and nothing is concrete.”
“The priority is patient safety,” he stressed. “We need to ensure we are certain that patients can access services they need in a safe and coordinated manner. We don’t want a situation where we open the hospital only to have to close it again. We need to be certain that services are safe to access. We hope to open everything we can open within a short space of time, but that depends on the outcome of the technical assessment which is ongoing at the moment.”
With hopes high for the restoration of some services, a source within the emergency response feels that there will be a difficult few weeks ahead for the whole south east region.
"Realistically, it could be months before we’ve a fully functioning A&E again,” the source said. “The entire hospital mainframe went down. At best, I’d imagine the hospital will only be able to deal with minor injuries for a while. We’ll be dancing with the devil while this goes on. If you go into cardiac arrest in Wexford town as things stand, you’re going to Waterford.”
While unable to comment on individual cases, Dr Yousif also confirmed that two babies were born at Wexford General in the midst of Wednesday evening’s chaos and thankfully mothers and babies were “safe and well”.
Expectant mothers with any queries in relation to their care in Wexford General’s maternity ward are asked to ring the labour ward on 053 9153368.
Meanwhile, Wexford Fire Service is investigating whether an equipment fault led to the fire at Wexford General Hospital (WGH) yesterday afternoon.
A major emergency was declared after the fire broke out in the hospital’s machinery room at around 4pm.
Over 200 patients had to be evacuated but no injuries were reported among either patients or staff.
The patients, among them those seriously ill and in intensive care, were ferried by ambulances to hospitals in Kilkenny, Waterord, Cork and Dublin, in what has been described as “the biggest evacuation in the history of the health service”.
Emergency services have been working throughout the night to contain the damage.
Ray Murphy, Assistant Chief Fire Officer with Wexford Fire Service, said work is underway to determine the cause of the blaze, which started in the “rooftop plant room”.
“The plant [room] would be very, very safe when it’s operating under normal conditions and particularly when it's on the roof, you wouldn't be expecting any particular issues with the plant itself,” he told RTÉ’s ‘Morning Ireland’.
“Obviously something caused the fire… I expect it was a piece of equipment, though I’m not sure which piece would have started it.
“Maybe a pump or it could have been a motor or a belt or something to that affect but that still remains to be analysed.”
Mr Murphy described the damage caused to the facility as “medium or small even” and said he expects it will begin to reopen on a phased basis over the coming days.
“I wouldn’t consider it any large damage whatsoever. It’s [confined] to a small area within the hospital,” he said.
“They can certainly start getting back up and running in the coming days but obviously to get the 207 patients back in, it’s going to take probably weeks and months but I can see the hospital turning this around certainly in the next couple of days.”
Speaking on the same programme, Chair of Wexford County Council George Lawlor said roughly 30 patients are still waiting to transferred from the hospital and he described the emergency response as “remarkable”.
“It was a logistical nightmare in reality and it's remarkable that we're down to the figure of 30 patients,” he said.
“I’m really heartened to hear the comments of Ray Murphy about the condition of the hospital and the fact that we could possibly have this back up and running in a relatively short period of time because this is essential for the county of Wexford.”
Meanwhile, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed his shock regarding the fire at Wexford General Hospital and paid tribute to the emergency and other personnel who continue to battle the outbreak. He has also vowed that the Government will do whatever is required in the aftermath of this devastating fire.
“This terrible incident strikes to the heart of the community in Wexford and the broader region,” Mr Varadkar said in a statement late on Wednesday night.
“Fire crews and other emergency personnel have been fighting this major emergency for many hours. We pay tribute to their dedication and heroism.
“Our thoughts are also with the hundreds of patients who have had to be evacuated from the hospital, as well as their families, and the staff and management dealing with this unprecedented situation. I will be receiving an update on the situation on Thursday. The Government will do whatever is required in the aftermath of this emergency.”
In what is being called “the biggest evacuation in the history of the health service”, only around 30 of the estimated 207 patients remain on site at Wexford General Hospital on Thursday morning awaiting evacuation, as hospital staff and emergency services worked through the night on relocating patients to hospitals in Kilkenny, Cork and Dublin.
Up to 45 firefighters were involved in tackling the fire over the course of Wednesday evening and shortly after 6pm it was declared a “major incident” and the decision was finally taken to evacuate the entire hospital.
A HSE helpline has been set up to deal with queries from patients’ families and loved ones and can now be reached on 053 9153012.
A spokesperson for the Ireland East Hospital Group confirmed that thankfully there were no injuries reported throughout the course of the incident and that a significant logistical operation was now under way to see patients accommodated elsewhere.
ICU patients were accommodated first and spaces have been found for them in hospitals across the country, who have been more than willing to help.
Meanwhile, Accident and Emergency at the hospital is closed until further notice and all elective and outpatient appointments have been cancelled for both Thursday and Friday. The hospital will not be in direct contact with those impacted as the technology required is currently not operational. Appointments at Ely House will proceed as normal.
One woman, who had given birth by C-section less than 24 hours previously was moved down a smoke filled corridor with her newborn baby and left to sit on a hard chair, with the child in a mobile cot. She stated that while the nurses were “great”, confusion reigned as they awaited word from management on how to proceed and if the new mother was to be evacuated elsewhere.
Ray Murphy said: “We had hazards like flammable gas and oxygen on site. We got them cut off and dealt with the fire from the roof. But it spread to the roof of adjacent buildings.
"Thankfully, we were able to stop it there, and it didn’t go down through the building.
He said the evacuation took place early, “which was a good decision on the hospital’s part.
“They evacuated the on-call rooms and staff rooms on the fourth floor, and also the St Pat’s and St Catherine’s wards, which includes paediatrics. We also evacuated the St Mary’s ward, and ICU was also evacuated. In total, there were upwards of 100 people in that area,” he added.
Plumes of thick black smoke were seen across Wexford town, and Wexford Co Council issued a warning to those in the area to close their windows and doors.
The public was last night asked to stay away from the hospital. Anyone requiring emergency care was asked to attend their closest alternative accident and emergency unit.