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Potential cyberattack cripples parts of N.L.’s health-care system

TORONTO — A possible cyberattack may be behind a major, province-wide IT outage that hit Newfoundland and Labrador’s health-care system over the weekend and prompted the province to cancel many non-urgent appointments, authorities said on Monday.

“We may have been victims of a possible cyberattack by a third party,” provincial Health Minister John Haggie said during a news conference.

“This led to progressive failure of what’s been described to me as the ‘brain’ of the data centre and a loss of functionality and systems across the regional health authorities.”

As a result, the province said it has activated its provincial emergency operations centre to better address the impact.

“The data centre has two brains and both of them seem to have been affected by whatever the system failure was,” said Haggie. He added that networking functions took the biggest hit, but the nature and extent of the issue is still under investigation.

“We’re working with the appropriate authorities to look into the ultimate root cause of all this.”

Haggie also said they have no information yet on whether any patient information has been compromised as a result of the outage.

While all regional health authorities in the province were affected by the outage to varying degrees, the Eastern Regional Health Authority took the worst hit and will only be handling emergency procedures for the time being. Officials warned that medical services, including those in the emergency department, could experience delays as a result, while a number of non-urgent appointments were cancelled.

“Pretty much all of our systems at Eastern Health at the moment are not functional as a result of this particular outage,” said Eastern Health CEO David Diamond. This means everything including patient registration and information, all email, diagnostic imaging and lab results are currently inaccessible, he added.

The province’s contingency plans mean going back to a paper-based system, which is slow and inefficient, Diamond said, noting that continuing with regularly scheduled appointments would not be feasible given the amount of procedures health-care staff conduct on a daily basis.

Non-urgent outpatient blood collection appointments and all non-urgent x-rays, ultrasounds, and other imaging service appointments were also cancelled for Monday, but services including in-person dialysis, mental health and addictions counselling, home support and other special assistance programs remained available.

Bell Aliant, a division of Bell Canada, is the service provider that manages the province’s health-care system data centre and it did not immediately respond to a request for comment. CTV News is a part of Bell Media, whose parent company is BCE.

“I am aware that Bell has had some other challenges. Whether or not these are related, it’s not clear,” Haggie said. He did not believe the problems were a result of issues with Bell’s infrastructure, he said, since the province’s procurement standards around data security encryption are “very high.”

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