Wearing masks can alleviate strain on hospital resources: chief physician

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

Dr. Nicole Bocking, the unit’s medical officer of health, introduced the health system’s triple threat to health board members Nov. 10.

The Triple Threat refers to influenza, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that’s proving to be quite infectious this season. They’re causing havoc at hospitals locally and provincially.

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

“In particular, the combination of all three is putting significant pressure on Emergency Departments, primary care, walk-in clinics, and in-patient units at hospitals,” Bocking said.

There’s been a dramatic increase that shows a more than doubling of visits to emergency rooms in the region every week.

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

In a span of two weeks, health care facilities went from being at a moderate level to an elevated level. Moderate is higher than expected for this time of year.

The elevated level: “This is more than what we would be anticipating for this time of year,” Bocking said.

And that’s contributing to much longer wait times for patients in Emergency Departments. It’s adding to the burdens of overworked primary and senior care providers. Difficulty in patients being able to access walk-in clinics, she said.

“Overall, not only a shortage of health care workers contributing to the challenge, but also much higher than normal of visits coming to the Emergence Department for respiratory ailments,” Bocking said.

COVID-19 is contributing to the burden, but it isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.

“We’re already seeing more influenza activity than we’ve seen in some Januarys,” Bocking said.

There’s been much discussion about whether the provincial chief medical officer of health should bring back the mask mandate for indoor settings. Bocking said it’s recommended that masks be worn in crowded indoor public places.

“This isn’t 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 all those people around you.”

Protecting other people around you, the people you come into contact with throughout the day, is helping to alleviate some of the strain on the health care system, Bocking said.

“We’ve gone through a period of time where many people were quite happy to put their masks to the side and pretend that we weren’t dealing with it,” she said. “I think reality is here for the fall, which we were expecting to come. Now is the time for everyone to start paying attention.”

Children nine years old and younger are the largest age group presenting infections at emergency rooms. The risk of hospital admission is lower for younger people, she said. They can most often be managed in the Emergency Department.

“The challenge right now is they might not be able to get as timely care in the Emergency Department,” Bocking said. “And then we still get a high number of admission in total.”

That’s why many pediatric intensive care units throughout the province are at over-capacity, and older children are having to be transferred to adult ICUs.

“We see the largest pediatric ICUs having to transfer kids to other ICUs,” she said. “We see surgeries bring cancelled that would require ICU care for kids. That might be a heart surgery or something like that that’s not an emergency but they still need that surgery cancelled or postponed because there isn’t enough beds in the pediatric ICU.”

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James Matthews, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Haliburton County Echo