The COVID-19 coronavirus has not only the potential to blow a hole in Norfolk County’s budget, it has the potential to blow a hole in the local area’s population base.
Mayor Kristal Chopp kicked off a special meeting of Norfolk council on April 7 by sharing the county’s potential death toll if residents do not heed warnings to social distance and self-isolate in their homes.
Models indicate, the mayor said, that 500 Norfolk residents could die before the pathogen runs its course.
An estimated 3.5 residents per thousand could end up in an intensive-care unit on ventilators, the mayor added, which – given Norfolk’s population of 64,000 – means another 224 seriously ill and needing round-the-clock care.
Simcoe Coun. Ian Rabbitts asked senior staff for their best estimate of the pandemic’s duration. Rabbitts fears the emergency might keep the municipality and the local economy in a state of suspended animation for months and not weeks.
Chopp suggested the length of this ordeal – which has shut down most of the economy in North America and around the world – is up to Norfolk residents to decide.
“If everyone stayed home for a couple weeks, perhaps everyone could get back to work quicker,” the mayor said.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health, says the importance of social distancing, self-isolation and wearing a mask or other face covering can’t be over-emphasized.
These are literally life- and community-preserving measures, Nesathurai said – ones that will help prevent the health-care system from imploding while providing the best treatment possible for those who need it.
The alternative, Nesathurai said, is to enact policies that prioritize who gets treatment and who is left to die because health-care is stretched to the breaking point.
Nesathurai asked families to consider end-of-life conversations with the frail elderly about the measures they expect in the event COVID-19 makes them seriously ill.
COVID-19 is taking a stiff toll on the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. Symptoms – sometimes severe and debilitating – include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, and lung and organ damage.
Nesathurai says it is important to have these conversations because – with fewer than 30 ventilators on standby in Norfolk and Haldimand – front-line medical workers might have to triage who gets attention and who is left to their own devices.
“I would ask people to have that dialogue today, especially families that have elderly relations,” Nesathurai told Norfolk council. “Let’s hope we never get short of ventilators and ICU care. But we have to have policies in this area. The next three months will be difficult. But we can do it.”
Chopp added these scenarios are not theoretical. A former resident of Spain where the virus has taken a heavy toll, Chopp has spoken with friends there who say the gravely ill are essentially left to die.
“If you’re in Spain and you’re over 65, you don’t get a ventilator,” Chopp said.
A key indicator of how Norfolk and Ontario are faring against the contagion is the known infection rate. This is determined by aggressive testing of suspected victims and carriers.
Nesathurai said the infection rate in Ontario appears to be doubling every two days. Once that rate slows down or begins to decline, medical officials will know their game plan is working and that an epilogue is in sight.
However, Nesathurai emphasized that no one can let down their guard until the spread is halted and the community passes through a substantial interval of no new infections.