SOUTHBRIDGE – As its average of 1.5 patients per day doesn’t warrant maintaining an inpatient pediatric unit, Harrington HealthCare System officially notified the state Department of Public Health it intends to close the 11-bed section of the hospital in March, system president Edward H. Moore said Wednesday.

“I have to staff it around the clock and sometimes nobody’s there,” Mr. Moore said.

To that end, the DPH has set a public hearing to accept comments about Harrington’s request to close the unit. The hearing will be at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Publick House, 277 Main St., in Sturbridge. The state is also accepting written comments about the closure.

Harrington HealthCare System's Board of Directors approved the closure late last year, after years of declining volume and a trend showing families use larger hospital systems for inpatient pediatric care, according to Harrington.

Mr. Moore said the impact to the community would be nominal because, as part of the hearing process, Harrington is requesting waivers that would allow it to keep pediatric patients overnight if classified under “observation status,” meaning their needs aren’t as intense.

“I’d rather continue to see those people, because we can do that on a medical floor, not a pediatric discrete unit,” Mr. Moore said. “In doing so, fewer patients would have to go out of area than otherwise.”

If a child comes to Harrington’s emergency rooms in Southbridge or Webster, “we’ll take care of you,” Mr. Moore said. “The disposition thereafter is the judgment call. If they need 12 hours of IV fluid, we can do that."

But if a child needs to be admitted for more intense care and “if we can’t do that, then we will send them to an appropriate place,” the CEO said.

The health care system will continue to care for pediatric patients in all outpatient settings, including imaging, lab, primary care, behavioral health and physical therapy.

Mr. Moore said it shouldn’t be a problem to continue doing outpatient pediatric surgeries.

During the past year, Harrington’s average inpatient pediatric census was 1.5 patients per day. In the past 10 months, a portion of the pediatric unit was also used for post-surgical patient recovery three days per week, to use the space and staffing more effectively, according to the hospital.

Statewide, only 13 hospitals currently have dedicated inpatient pediatric units, according to Harrington, which says it’s joining a growing list of more than two dozen hospitals across the state that have closed pediatric inpatient services.

Harrington's pediatric unit is staffed by approximately nine to 10 full-time equivalent employees. Mr. Moore said some will remain with Harrington in other roles, while others are retiring, some have found other jobs, and others will receive assistance, in conjunction with the state, to find jobs elsewhere.

News of the plan to close the unit spread in October, when area residents expressed concern on social media about having to travel to Worcester for the service.

In 2017, Harrington closed its birthing center.

Mr. Moore said closing the pediatric inpatient unit should be less controversial than shuttering the birthing center because local child births are “more of a planned event, if you will,” he said.

Harrington Hospital reported recent financial gains of $9 million. However, the overall system loses more money than it brings in, Mr. Moore said. Harrington Physician Services, which employs about 80 providers and 250 people, had operating losses of $8.5 million in fiscal 2017 and $4.3 million in fiscal 2018, he said.