Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit issues pandemic SOS

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a “crisis” that could last another two years while posing a “risk of catastrophic failure” to the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit.

So says a report that was to be tabled Oct. 6 at the Norfolk and Haldimand Board of Health.

The report says the pandemic is imposing pressure on the general public that may overwhelm government’s ability to respond in a worst-case scenario.

“We are entering uncharted territory,” says the 22-page document, which was prepared by Marlene Miranda, general manager of health and social services in Norfolk and Haldimand.

“If a second wave occurs, we don’t know the impact (on) mental health, substance (abuse) and other matters. If income supports are removed, the impact on those using substances, priority populations, and our vulnerable residents could have significant ramifications within our communities. If this occurs, the health unit will need to address these outcomes.”

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The worst-case scenario includes a COVID-19 outbreak in the health unit itself.

Were that to happen, Miranda says Norfolk and Haldimand would see a temporary but drastic reduction in health services while leaving the public defenceless if COVID-19 spreads through the rest of the population. A preventive measure includes the rapid implementation of an electronic records system that would allow staff to separate and work from remote locations.

Miranda notes that two of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in Ontario occurred within the local health district. The outbreaks at the Anson Place long-term care centre in Hagersville and Scotlynn Group of Vittoria involved about 500 positive cases and 28 deaths in total – 27 of these at Anson Place.

In both instances, Miranda says the health unit mobilized teams of 30-plus full-time employees that worked long hours seven-days-a-week ensuring the outbreak did not spread to the community.

These teams were pulled together ad hoc and endured great stress for the duration of the outbreaks. Miranda said some employees began to buckle, citing increased reports of anxiety, depression and marital discord. Vacations have been cancelled while “time-off approval has been limited to meet operational demands.”

As well, Miranda says the re-assignment of Norfolk staff to pandemic duties is impairing the county’s ability to deliver services and programs unrelated to health and social services. The health unit itself, she adds, has greatly scaled back activity in traditional areas such as restaurant inspections, vaccine programs and dental screenings in the school system.

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The report concludes by recommending that the Norfolk and Haldimand Board of Health hire 30 full-time staff as a dedicated COVID-19 response team. The report says the team and its full-time director may be needed till June 2022. The report recommends applying to the Ministry of Health for funding.

“The inability to hire the COVID-19 response team will pose a challenge to the health unit’s ability to contain the virus and potentially lead to an increase in confirmed cases, clusters and outbreaks within the community, including death,” Miranda says. “Outbreak management requires a timely response and a trained team ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice.”

The report adds that the pandemic response in Norfolk and Haldimand to date has come at substantial cost. Also substantial, the report adds, is the cost of a dedicated COVID-19 team.

The report says the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit’s COVID-19 response so far has cost $4.2 million, $427,000 of which has been non-union overtime.

The requests in the report would add another $1 million in unbudgeted expenses for 2020 while costing $3.3 million through all of 2021.

Norfolk council serves as the board of health for both Norfolk and Haldimand counties. Miranda’s report was t be tabled Tuesday afternoon at Governor Simcoe Square in Simcoe in a meeting closed to the public due to social-distancing requirements.