Health care leaders worried about wave of illness

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In a media conference on Monday, health care leaders said they anticipate a potentially difficult winter season due to an increase in percent positivity for COVID-19 and institutional outbreaks, in addition to a rapid increase in hospitalizations and emergency department visits for respiratory illness.

Emergency room department visits related to respiratory illness in the entire region have increased by 14 per cent compared to previous years. Hospitals across Ontario have been overwhelming health care systems due to a wave of illnesses in addition to ongoing staffing struggles.

When asked about the severity of concern, the majority of the health leaders replied that they were “very worried.”

While mask mandates and precautions will not be enforced, they strongly encourage people to return to “what kept everybody safe in those earlier phases of the pandemic.”

Sue LeBeau, president and CEO of Red Lake Hospital, said they are seeing more respiratory illness in children and that the kids are “sicker.” In addition, the hospital is seeing Influenza A and Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in the community.

“We’re often in smaller rural hospitals or remote hospitals, we have a limited buffer. So it’s important that people take care of themselves, that they stay home if they’re ill, and that they do what they can to prevent illness,” LeBeau said.

Ray Rossett, president and CEO of Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, said that the percentage of emergency visits for children has increased from 14 per cent in October to 25 per cent in the past two weeks of November.

“And we’re just getting into the beginning of whatever surge is coming our way,” he said.

“At this particular phase we’re expecting for the first time RSV, influenza and COVID all peeking around the same time which is going to put a lot of strain on on the health system.”

“At the same time we’re at the lowest in our staffing and because of the health human resource challenges that played out during the last year or so of the pandemic. So this would be a new challenge with less staff to deal with it,” Rossett said.

Doreen Armstrong-Ross, CEO at Dryden Regional Health Centre, said that the hospital in Dryden has also been seeing increased respiratory illness in the community.

“We do really want to appeal to the public that if you’re sick, but you’re not needing medical attention, don’t come to the hospital and ERs. The waits are going to be long and we are having to prioritize care for the sickest that come in,” she said.

She encouraged individuals who can manage their respiratory illness at home and who do not need emergency medical attention to access the COVID-19 Assessment and Treatment Center in Dryden which can provide support and advice from health care professionals.

Dr. Bruce Cook, chief of staff at Dryden Regional Health Centre, added that with the rise in respiratory illnesses, some patients have had to be transferred to tertiary care centers. “So this is serious. And we want to see those patients that have serious illnesses. … We are seeing a mixture of three very significant viruses. And we want to see those who are the most sick.”

“I am very worried,” said Dr. Kit Young Hoon, medical officer of health at the Northwestern Health Unit.

She added that the health care sector is “less resilient” because of the ongoing staffing issues in addition to being “bombarded with waves of illnesses.”

“Combining all those factors together, we do have a situation that can be very, very difficult in the upcoming months,” Dr. Young Hoon said.

Rossett from Lake of the Woods District Hospital added that a major health center can suddenly become “unavailable” as seen in the outbreak of RSV from Nunavut which occupied the pediatrics intensive care unit in Winnipeg.

He noted that the health care system will anticipate even more challenges because safety mandates were enforced in the past but not anymore.

“We really need people to go back to what kept everybody safe in those earlier phases of the pandemic. You’re not going to get mandated, but we would ask you to seriously consider that as a way of protecting you and your families and protecting our capacity, because we do need it for people who require service and if we get overwhelmed, there will be people who need service that won’t get it. And that’s what I worry about the most,” Rossett said.

“We can choose our own mandate as an individual. And we can choose to mask and do things that kept us safe during the pandemic. Because really, that’s the only way we’re going to be able to manage this.”