By Mike Baker
The Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit [HKPRDHU] is “sounding the alarm” with the recent spike in local COVID-19 cases stretching the capacity of the health unit to its limits.
In the past 14 days, HKPR district health unit has been notified of 282 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 500 high-risk contacts spread across Haliburton County, Kawartha Lakes and Northumberland County.
Dr. Natalie Bocking, the region’s medical officer of health, indicated her team has been feeling especially strained in recent weeks. As well as handling the increase in cases, the unit is operating five mass immunization clinics, investigating eight community outbreaks, responding to between 200 and 300 phone calls and emails per day, working with health care partners to set up programs to immunize homebound residents, and working with primary health care providers to implement vaccination of patients.
“We are doing a bit of a dance right now as we continue to work through new cases while also rolling out our vaccination clinics as we know that, in the long run, the vaccinations will play a major role in changing the trajectory of the pandemic,” Bocking said.
HKPR district health unit last week introduced some “process changes” to balance the work involved with tackling the higher than usual number of new cases while continuing to offer mass immunization clinics in the communities.
The most significant change is the way that high-risk contacts will be handled moving forward. As of Monday [April 19], anyone who is identified as a high-risk contact of a confirmed case will be emailed a letter outlining quarantine and testing requirements. Health unit staff will continue to work closely with individuals who are confirmed cases.
Also, in order to address the hundreds of phone calls and emails coming into the health unit each day, staff will only be responding to urgent or emergency messages moving forward. Individuals who call or email to check on when they may be eligible to be vaccinated will not receive a response.
To compound matters, Bocking says the health unit is experiencing challenges due to decreases in local vaccine delivery. Expected shipments of the Moderna vaccine have been delayed until the end of the month, while the number of Pfizer doses has also dropped – down to around 3,500 doses per week as opposed to the 5,800 doses it was receiving weekly earlier in April.
The vaccine shortage comes at a time when the Ontario government has loosened eligibility requirements for residents to book their shot. Those 60 years of age and older are eligible to book their COVID-19 vaccination at community clinics via the provincial portal as of April 12.
“Our goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible, but with expanded eligibility provincially and no additional vaccine to provide locally, we are challenged to offer more clinics for our residents,” Dr. Bocking said.
Despite this shortage, the health unit is still committed to fulfilling all appointments that have been scheduled through the online portal to date.
With the number of COVID-19 cases reaching new daily highs here in Ontario, Bocking is pleading with local residents to follow the provincial stay-at-home order and public health recommendations to help stop the spread of the virus. She says this should mean staying home unless you need to go out for an essential reason – those being to go to work, to get groceries, or attend a medical appointment.
“In more than half of our latest cases, there is no one point of exposure so that tells us we are clearly seeing the virus circulating in our communities,” Bocking said. “We need to stay vigilant, follow the directions and do our part to stop any further spread.”