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Newfoundland confirms cyberattack as cause of healthcare IT outage

Newfoundland continues to be tight-lipped on what it now acknowledges was a cyberattack five days ago.

At a news conference Wednesday, health and community services minister John Haggie confirmed that the IT outage that has affected most of the provincial healthcare system was caused by a cyberattack. However, he deflected questions about how it started and whether, as reported by CBC News, it was a ransomware attack.

“Those involved in the attack may be actually monitoring what we are saying in the media and on the floor of the House (legislature),” he said. “It’s very important, therefore, we don’t do or say anything that compromises the efforts underway to investigate and resolve this matter.”

Asked if the province has communicated with the attacker, Haggie said that “we engaged experts and appropriate authorities. Best practice is to not comment any further on what may or may not be happening. It is important we not say or do anything that could jeopardize the [IT system] rebuild and our attempts at mitigation.”

As for whether digital data — including patient records, lab results and x-rays — has been lost, Haggie said “that question is as yet unclear.”

During his initial press conference Monday on the attack Haggie said “backups at local level exist. There were backups at the provincial level, but part of what happened will be told when the full analysis is available from our experts.”

The news service quoted Pat Hepditch, vice president of solutions and infrastructure at the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information, saying the centre is working hard and around the clock to gain a full understanding of the attack.

“It is very early in the process, but the restoration process is underway,” Hepditch said. “It’s difficult to say exactly how long it will take. We are working hard to try to get things back up and running again.”

Meanwhile, the network outage has forced the province’s Western Health region to cancel all but emergency services to the 80,000 people it covers. Only urgent and emergency appointments will proceed for surgery, endoscopy, blood collection, medical imaging, outpatient EKG, and fracture clinics. INR blood collections will proceed.

It joins the Eastern Health region, which includes the provincial capital of St. John’s, in restricting service. Because the region’s COVID-19 test results portal is down, individuals can’t access their results online. Therefore Public Health is contacting people directly if their COVID-19 test result is positive, or if they require retesting due to an inconclusive result.

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