Ottawa Public Health concerned about keeping up non-pandemic work

The health unit has been front-and-centre during the pandemic, but it's concerned COVID-19 could be hampering day-to-day work like vaccinating schoolchildren and running sexual health clinics.

Physical distancing and staffing levels are affecting OPH clinics and programs

The spread of COVID-19 has Ottawa Public Health trying to figure out how to best carry out flu clinics and programs that aren't related to the pandemic. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has been front-and-centre during the pandemic, but the agency is concerned COVID-19 could be hampering day-to-day work like vaccinating schoolchildren and running sexual health clinics.

Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said late last month she was concerned about the programs OPH has had to cut back on, such as dental screenings that keep people out of emergency rooms.

Many OPH staff have been shifted to tracing the contacts of those infected by the virus.

Other programs, like groups for mothers or seniors, are affected simply because of the need to ensure physical distancing. Etches also worried about having missed a round of meningitis vaccinations that usually takes place in schools. 

"We're struggling with how to deal with the immunization process," agreed Coun. Keith Egli, chair of the board of health. "That's top of mind."

Not only are there routine childhood vaccinations typically administered in school gyms to consider, but OPH will also have to find ways to encourage people to get their flu shots this fall, Egli said, especially as holding roving flu clinics may prove difficult.

"We need more capacity to be able to catch up on some of these core services," Etches said at the end of July.

Respond now, deal with costs later

As it stands, Egli projects OPH will have an $8-12 million deficit by year end. The province has announced $100 million to help public health units monitor, test and trace the virus, but Ottawa still doesn't know its allocation. 

The Ministry of Health says the process for agencies to seek reimbursement is "forthcoming".

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, seen here in 2019, says routine vaccinations are one of the areas local health officials are struggling with. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The pandemic has forced OPH to innovate in certain ways, like allowing people seeking an HIV test to prick themselves and send the samples in by mail.

Many community clinics are closed or by appointment only. But with more money or staff, Egli said, they would be able to extend hours to see more people.

"This is not a discussion that's going to end in 2020. It's going to go on for the next year or two years at least," said Egli.

"I think there needs to be a buffer for public health agencies so we can do what we're supposed to do in normal times and we can do what we need to do in COVID times."

Ontario's public health overhaul

When the COVID-19 shutdown happened in March, the Ontario government was holding consultations on possibly reducing the number of health units.

That's on hold for now.

"Once the COVID-19 outbreak is contained and risks are mitigated for the people of Ontario, Ontario will consider how to move forward with the modernization process," wrote Ministry of Health spokesperson Christian Hasse in an email.

Egli said OPH's position won't change: it wants to keep its boundaries and maintain its relationship with the City of Ottawa because it knows who to call and who does what when an emergency like a tornado hits.

"I think [COVID-19] has shown the importance of public health and the necessity of public health, that it needs to be well-organized, it needs to be well-financed in order to carry out its job," said Egli.

About the Author

Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past 15 years, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.

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