Possible cyberattack hits ‘brain’ of Newfoundland health care system, delaying thousands of appointments

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Cyber ​​attack appears to be the source of a province-wide healthcare disruption in Newfoundland and Labrador that has affected thousands of appointments and procedures, including those involving testing COVID-19.

“We may have been the victim of a possible third-party cyberattack,” Health Minister John Haggie said at a press conference Monday morning.

The possible attack was first felt on Saturday morning and hit “the brain of the data center” that powers the province’s health care system, Haggie said.

“We have a system that is damaged,” he said.

Sources told CBC News the attack was ransomware, but Haggie said he couldn’t confirm it yet.

“The nature and extent of it is still under investigation,” he told reporters.

One thing is clear: The events of the weekend rocked the health care system, mainly in Eastern Health, the largest of the province’s four health authorities, where almost all procedures except emergency ones were canceled. .

“It’s been a tough few days,” said David Diamond, CEO of Eastern Health.

The range of what has been affected by the health authority is wide, no patients can be registered and the whole messaging system is down.

Emergency services continue and ambulance services are also operating, but thousands of scheduled procedures booked for Monday have been canceled. (Paul Daly / CBC)

Back to paper

Eastern Health is now using its contingency plan to get by, a plan that has effectively pushed the health authority back in the past.

“[It] means we’re going back to a paper-based system, which is not very efficient and slow, ”said Diamond.

He couldn’t give an exact figure on how many procedures – ranging from surgery to chemotherapy to x-rays – were affected, but he estimated it was in the thousands.

Clinical experts, he said, advised against going ahead with most appointments using the paper system for security reasons.

“It’s a significant impact, there’s no question about it, and the numbers would be pretty big,” Diamond said. Eastern Health’s delays are affecting patients across the province, he said, as people come to the St. John’s area for appointments with specialists.

Diamond predicts that the health authority will also delay elective procedures on Tuesday and potentially Wednesday.

Western Health and Labrador-Grenfell Health appear to have escaped much of the damage, while Central Health is moderately affected, Haggie said, with all of Monday’s booked appointments canceled.

The disruption has meant that chemotherapy at several hospitals within Western Health’s jurisdiction, including Corner Brook, Stephenville and Port aux Basques, will not take place on Monday. At Labrador-Grenfell Health, all routine lab and diagnostic imaging appointments set for Monday will be rescheduled.

In a press release sent Monday afternoon, the health authority said the issue was affecting some of its systems in the region, but appointments will be on Tuesday, with a few exceptions: chemotherapy at Western Hospital. Memorial is canceled because site is operated by Eastern Scheduled health, telehealth and virtual appointments with Eastern Health or Central Health providers are also being canceled.

Some tests that require processing of samples in the Eastern Health Region will need to be rescheduled, and anyone needing a COVID-19 test in the Western Health Region is urged to call a toll-free number.

Haggie said his department recommended COVID-19 testing move away from electronic and phone bookings to a walk-in base. The online portal that gives people their test results has been affected, and Haggie said public health officials will use the phone to notify people of positive results.

Vaccination clinics are not affected by the blackouts.

Patients whose procedures are continuing despite the problems will be contacted, Diamond said. For the rest, telephone lines and web portals have been set up for reprogramming. Eastern Health’s line is 1-833-777-1276, while Central Health’s is 1-844-651-6214.

Diamond said processing cancellations could require staff to work overtime evenings and weekends. The system has overcome recent backlogs resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns and snowstorms, he said, with those experiences being useful in addressing the current problem.

No timeline for a fix

Haggie said the Newfoundland and Labrador Health Information Center – which manages the province’s computing needs, including electronic health records – and telecommunications company Bell Aliant are working on the issue, but there is not yet a clear timetable for the return to normal.

“They hope for days, but we just have to keep in mind that it is hope, and keep working on mitigation from a frontline perspective, to deal with the impacts on patient care.” , did he declare.

There are more questions than answers at this point about what happened and the extent of the damage.

Haggie said they “have no information one way or another” on whether patients’ personal information has been compromised.

He referred questions as to whether any branches of the provincial government had been affected to the Department of Digital Government and Service NL.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has been notified, he said, and a list of organizations and agencies outside the provincial government has been looped, including Health Canada, the insurer. provincial disease and law enforcement agencies.

People who test positive for the COVID-19 test will be called by public health, Haggie says. (Lindsay Bird / CBC)

Speaking to reporters on Monday, PC opposition leader David Brazil asked if the government has done enough to prepare for a possible cybersecurity breach after a similar situation arose in Nunavut in 2019.

He said the unknown timeline for repairing the system is of particular concern, especially for those with urgent appointments like cancer treatments.

“It is worrying for all of us,” he said. “We have to know the gravity of the situation and we have to know exactly how we are going to fix it.”

NDP MPP Jordan Brown has called on the government to release more information about the blackout.

“We should now know what is really going on.”

A cybersecurity expert said ransomware attacks are known to hit healthcare services.

“These types of attacks are very virulent,” said Steve Waterhouse, a former information systems security officer at the Montreal-based Department of National Defense.

“As we speak, they are traveling the world, and most importantly they are attacking health service systems, with the aim of making these health services pay quickly to regain access to their systems so that they can continue. to serve the people. “

Ransomware attacks use malware to block or encrypt files, with a ransom payment demanded in order to restore access.

Read more about CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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