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by Isabel Mosseler
Published April 4, 2020
As of 8 am on Wednesday, April 1, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Nipissing, but that will most likely change. An extremely busy Cynthia Desormiers, CEO of the West Nipissing General Hospital, was able to respond to some questions, affirming that the WNGH is doing everything it can to prepare for any eventuality.
Desormiers confirmed that there is only one respirator at WNGH and any cases requiring such treatment will need to be transported to either North Bay or Sudbury. “We have one portable ventilator here, a dual ventilator that works also as a bypass machine and a portable vent. But we don’t have any [other] ventilators here so we would be shipping people to North Bay or Sudbury or the closest bed available, should those two facilities be at capacity… At this time, at 8:11 a.m., because it changes constantly, we have no positive, no confirmed cases in our community.”
However, there are now six confirmed cases in the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit area, which includes West Nipissing as as well North Bay, the east part of Nipissing, and part of Muskoka. The first case was made public on March 26 as Dr. Jim Chirico, Medical Officer of Health, held a video press conference to make the announcement. He addressed a case that had been detected by another Health Unit, with the person having contact with residents in the local district, as well as a woman in her sixties who had travelled internationally.
Dr. Chirico somberly predicted that this was just the beginning, and he was right. Just two days later, March 28, the Health Unit announced that two people in their 70s, who had been repatriated from a cruise ship, had returned to the district after being quarantined at the Trenton army base since March 10. The two had tested positive for COVID-19 and were self isolating at home.
“It is expected that there will be more individuals who test positive,” Dr. Chirico again warned, asking people to practice social distancing and protective hygiene.
The most concerning case was made public on March 30. This was the first case not linked to travel but to community transmission. “This means the virus is spreading within the community and is not linked to travel or a previously known individual who tested positive,” announced a Health Unit release. “It is expected that transmission within the community will continue. The Health Unit’s Communicable Disease Control program works with any individual who tests positive to connect with their close contacts. If the person who tested positive was in a location that puts the public at risk, the Health Unit will make the public aware.”
While several people expressed frustration at not knowing where, in the vast district, the positive case was identified, the Health Unit insisted they were putting out all necessary details while being careful not to compromise the privacy of patients. “In accordance with privacy legislation the Health Unit will not be disclosing an individual’s district of residence in combination with other personal information,” wrote the Health Unit’s public relations specialist, Alex McDermid, in response to the Tribune’s query.
Cynthia Desormiers believes it is the right approach. “Dr. Chirico from Public Health is doing a very good job of putting out those press releases so people know how the person acquired the C19, where they are, where they are located, without any personal health information.”
Desormiers adds that the flow of information helps to alleviate fears, while at the same time protecting the privacy of the individual. “Just because somebody has COVID-19 doesn’t mean all their personal health information is an entitlement of the public.”
Of course, a big piece of the puzzle is testing, and as of April 1, there had been 313 people tested in the district, with 159 negative results and 148 pending. This past Monday, March 30, a COVID-19 Assessment Centre was opened at the Marcel Noël Hall in Sturgeon Falls recreation complex, to ramp up testing in the area. Testing is done there by appointment only, after an assessment of risk factors.
“We’re running from noon to 4 pm, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We had no traffic on Monday, one phone call, but that’s okay. That means people are self isolating, staying home and not venturing out unnecessarily,” Desormiers states.
Hospital staff is on the front lines, of course, and an important defense will be Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, which are in short supply throughout the world. “We are monitoring the inventory very closely on a daily basis. We’re counting everything from masks to goggles, gloves and gowns. We’re watching it very closely because there is a concern in Ontario about having adequate PPE for healthcare workers. We’re staying on top of that,” Desormiers assures.
They are also controlling physical access as much as possible. “One of the things we are strongly encouraging is no visitors in the Emergency Department. If you have a sore throat or a fractured hand, by all means, if you need to, come in - but come in alone. Don’t bring anyone else with you unless it’s exceptional circumstances, like a small child or somebody with a disability (...). We are decreasing our laboratory hours next week from 7am to 3 pm. No more walk-ins in the X-ray Department; we’re providing everybody with a phone number and extension to call ahead and make an appointment. We will space it out so there won’t be 2 or 3 people at the same time. We are now sending our testing swabs to Timmins; we’re hopeful to have a better turnaround time than the whole province sending them to Toronto, which was lengthening the turnaround time for test results. Other than that, we remain closed to visitors.”
Desormiers is also a part of the Emergency Management Control Group, along with representatives from the WN Community Health Centre, Au Château, the Health Unit, emergency services and town officials. “We meet every Wednesday morning, sharing what the practices are and what’s happening in each organization, and what are some of the opportunities for change or improvement in our community as a whole. The communication will come out of the municipality as a result of any decisions or recommendations.”
Desormiers says the preparedness helps to keep people alert but not panicking. “I think everybody is concerned and that’s a fair feeling to have. Everyone in Ontario, the world, is concerned. Some people are worried, and that’s okay too because it keeps you on your A-game, that you’re wearing the right PPE as required and washing hands… That’s normal feelings during a pandemic. What we caution and what we are watching for is when it becomes panic, because people don’t make good decisions when they are panicking. We’re trying to maintain that calmness, making sure people are safe and informed on a daily basis here so that we can stay concerned, a little worried, but also make the best decisions possible for our patients and the organization.”
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