Nfld. & Labrador

Strain on resources amid COVID-19 outbreak has been 'challenging,' says Eastern Health

With hundreds of health-care workers in self-isolation, along with thousands of members of the public awaiting testing for COVID-19, the CEO of Eastern Health says the focus now is on keeping essential services running and doing everything they can to prevent any further spread of the virus.

Staffing redirected to testing sites, coronavirus response as services reduced to urgent-emergent model

People line up in their vehicles at a drive-thru testing site, as health-care workers swab for COVID-19 on Monday. (Shery Vivian/CBC)

With hundreds of health-care workers in self-isolation, along with thousands of members of the public awaiting testing for COVID-19, the CEO of Eastern Health says the focus now is on keeping essential services running and doing everything they can to prevent any further spread of the virus.

David Diamond said the scaling back of health services was vital amid the outbreak of coronavirus variant B117 in order to keep essential services running.

"Really what we're wanting to do is a rollback of services for a short period of time to ensure that we have staff available to provide the services to people that absolutely need them," Diamond says.

Resources have been redirected to the response of the outbreak of coronavirus variant B117, including "well over" 200 staff members now assigned to testing clinics in the region.

We have had some close calls in long-term care; we want to make sure we don't end up in the same situation as other jurisdictions.- David Diamond

There are about 500 health-care workers in the Eastern Health region who are in isolation, Diamond said. As of Monday afternoon, nine had been confirmed positive for COVID-19.

"They are from around various programs and sites in the region so it's not clustered anywhere, and primarily it's a result of contact in the community," Diamond said.

With so many staff in isolation, or reassigned to the outbreak response, Diamond said there's an added strain on the employees who are able to work.

"We've seen it in individual units and departments where staff are not able to attend because of self-isolation, and obviously we have to try and fill those gaps, which means temporary staff and casual staff and regular staff are working on overtime," he told CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

"We haven't seen a scenario where we haven't been able to provide care, but logistically it's been very challenging because it means drawing on every possible resource that we can find to fill the gaps. We've been able to do that and we will be able to do that, I think, going forward because we've reduced our services."

Delays at testing sites over the weekend were "purely logistical," Diamond said, adding those problems have since been addressed. The opening of a new testing site at the Reid Community Centre in Mount Pearl as of late Monday should also help ease any backlog.

David Diamond, president and CEO of Eastern Health, says scaling back some services was necessary to keep essential services running. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Emphasis now is on ensuring long-term care facilities are equipped to keep the virus out, as well as respond swiftly if COVID-19 is found among the province's most vulnerable population.

"We have had some close calls in long-term care; we want to make sure we don't end up in the same situation as other jurisdictions," Diamond said.

Health-care workers and support staff — like housekeeping and maintenance — in departments like long-term care, ICU and emergency departments have been identified as priority groups for the vaccine, Diamond said, along with residents in long-term care facilities.

Eastern Health has continued with its vaccination rollout for long-term care residents, says Diamond. (Szilard Koszticsak/The Associated Press)

"Anybody in an area that's been deemed a priority, including support staff, have already been vaccinated, primarily in the metro area," Diamond said.

"We're now looking at how we take that out to Clarenville, Carbonear, Burin, Bonavista and the other parts of our region."

Eastern Health has also gotten help from the other regional health authorities to help with contact tracing. The public health testing lab is "maxed out," Diamond said, but Eastern Health has gotten help from federal labs in Winnipeg, Guelph and Ottawa in the last couple of days.

Additional resources have come from other organizations, as well, Diamond said.

"The Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, we've had lots of support from the volunteer community, municipalities have helped us at the testing centres, Memorial University and the College of the North Atlantic have offered up staff, and the private sector as well has been very supportive," he said.

"It's a full team effort. We feel quite supported."

'It's harder to control'

As for what lies ahead, it's important not to read too much into a decline in confirmed positive cases, says Dr. Proton Rahman, the lead for provincial COVID-19 modelling.

Rahman echoed concerns voiced by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald: "What really worries us is the cases out there that we don't know about."

The outbreak was at first mostly concentrated in a younger, less vulnerable population, Rahman said, but is now being discovered in parents and grandparents, who are more likely to develop complications.

Dr. Proton Rahman is a professor of medicine at Memorial University and the lead for the provincial COVID-19 modelling. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

"It's a series of unfortunate events," he said. "The first community outbreak in many many months, a virus in the community that ended up being a variant of concern — specifically the U.K. variant, many large gatherings over a short period of time, and transmission that was primarily asymptomatic."

The variant presents specific challenges, Rahman said, including the possibility of a higher hospitalization rate.

But in the meantime, Rahman said, it's important to remain vigilant until the spread is under control.

"I think we all make our own inferences as we see the cases go up and down, but I think stringency is the most important thing, just to see how the data actually plays out," he said.

"What we do know about the variant that's of concern is it's more transmissible, it's harder to control, so extra vigilance is required."

An unprecedented outbreak in Newfoundland of the coronavirus variant originally found in the UK holds lessons for the rest of Canada. CBC St-John’s reporter Peter Cowan on what those lessons are. 21:11

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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