Wearing masks can ease pressure on hospital resources: chief medical officer

By James Matthews

Respiratory illnesses continue to rise at all four health care facilities in the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit catchment area.

Dr. Nicole Bocking, Unit Medical Officer of Health, presented the Triple Threat of the Health System to members of the Board of Health on November 10.

Triple threat refers to influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) which is proving quite contagious this season. They wreak havoc on local and provincial hospitals.

RSV generally affects young children more seriously than older children and adults. But it can cause outbreaks in long-term care homes.

“In particular, the combination of the three puts significant pressure on emergency departments, primary care, walk-in clinics and hospital inpatient units,” Bocking said.

There has been a dramatic increase which shows that the number of emergency room visits in the region has more than doubled each week.

“The volume this year is higher than previous years,” she said.

Within two weeks, health facilities moved from moderate to high. Moderate is higher than expected for this time of year.

The high level: “It’s more than we expected for this time of year,” Bocking said.

And that contributes to much longer wait times for patients in emergency departments. This increases the burden on overworked primary and senior care providers. Difficulty for patients to access walk-in clinics, she said.

“Overall, not only is a shortage of healthcare workers contributing to the challenge, but also much higher than normal emergency department visits for respiratory conditions,” Bocking said.

COVID-19 contributes to the burden, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle.

“We are already seeing more flu activity than we saw in some months in January,” Bocking said.

There has been much discussion about whether the province’s chief medical officer of health should reinstate the mask mandate for indoor environments. Bocking said it was recommended to wear masks in crowded indoor public places.

“It’s not just about someone saying, ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, I don’t need to wear a mask, I’m not worried, it’s just a cold’ “, she said. “It’s also about protecting everyone around you.”

Protecting the other people around you, the people you come into contact with throughout the day, helps alleviate some of the pressure on the healthcare system, Bocking said.

“We went through a period where a lot of people were quite happy to put their masks aside and pretend we didn’t care,” she said. “I think the reality is there for the fall, which we’ve been waiting for. Now is the time for everyone to start paying attention.

Children nine and under are the largest age group with ED infections. The risk of hospitalization is lower for young people, she said. They can most often be taken care of in the emergency department.

“The challenge right now is that they might not be able to get as timely care in the emergency department,” Bocking said. “And then we always get a high number of admissions overall.”

That’s why many pediatric intensive care units across the province are overcapacity and older children need to be moved to adult intensive care units.

“We see the larger pediatric intensive care units having to transfer children to other intensive care units,” she said. “We are seeing canceled surgeries that would require intensive care for children. It could be heart surgery or something that isn’t an emergency, but they still need that surgery canceled or postponed because there aren’t enough beds in the pediatric ICU.

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