How Islanders with health conditions are navigating COVID-19 pandemic

As the medical system shifts to concentrate resources on fighting COVID-19, many still rely on the system for treatment of their pre-existing health conditions.

Health-care associations, organizations continue to support patients despite changes

Dialysis patients in P.E.I. are continuing to receive care despite the reduction in service across Health PEI. (Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock)

P.E.I.'s health-care system may be shifting to concentrate resources on fighting COVID-19, but many still rely on the system to treat their pre-existing conditions.

Health PEI announced it would move to an essential-service plan more than three weeks ago, meaning that non-essential, non-urgent appointments and procedures were put off, and while the province's health-care associations and organizations aren't ringing any alarms, they are monitoring the situation.

"A lot of people that I have talked to have taken it upon themselves to kind of self-manage their situation and are really being careful and are really abiding by what the government is saying," said Robert MacDonald, president and CEO of the P.E.I. Lung Association.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and though symptoms are generally mild, seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions are at a higher risk for more serious effects.

MacDonald said those with lung conditions and diseases need to be aware of that increased risk.

"You need to educate yourself on what are your triggers for potential exacerbation with COPD or asthma," he said. "Avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital and kind of catch the problems before they occur."

COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a lung disease with long-term breathing problems and poor airflow, a condition that worsens over time.

"It is a major lung disease and affects a higher percentage of Islanders than many would think … you see them, you wouldn't necessarily know if they have COPD or not," he said.

"If you do know somebody that has lung disease that is living alone, you know, please reach out to them and see if there's something that you can do for them, whether it's delivering some groceries to the door or what have you, we need to do this."

MacDonald said he hasn't heard of challenges accessing medications, like inhalers, but the lung association will continue to monitor the situation as the pandemic stretches onwards.

Ongoing support

Despite the shift in medical resources, officials said dialysis, stroke, and emergency services are still available.

The Atlantic branch of the Kidney Foundation of Canada said they have not heard of any impact on dialysis services.

"Each unit has specific protocols in place, and we encourage patients to discuss this with their health-care team at their specific unit," the foundation said in an email to CBC.

Certainly people are masked, there's hand stations — sanitizer or using soap and water in the sink.- Corrine Hendricken-Eldershaw, Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. 

They added that they're seeing more demand for their programs and services, including a phone-based peer support system, educational material requests, and ensuring patients in emergency financial need have access to medications, food and transport to dialysis.

"Our services remain available during this critical time for kidney patients who need us."

MacDonald said the P.E.I. Lung Association is also providing alternative delivery of services, including a recent webinar with respirologists and respiratory therapists, which will soon be available on its website.

Masks and handwashing

The Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. is asking its clients to avoid their medical appointments unless absolutely necessary.

'Certainly people are masked, there's hand stations — sanitizer or using soap and water in the sink,' says Corinne Hendricken-Eldershaw of the Alzheimer Society of P.E.I. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"In circumstances where it has been necessary, because of other health-related issues and they've actually gone to a medical appointment, it's done with great care and caution," said CEO Corrine Hendricken-Eldershaw.

"Certainly people are masked, there's hand stations — sanitizer or using soap and water in the sink. So all of those little reminders for individuals with dementia is something that you certainly need to prompt if they're attending a medical appointment."

Hendricken-Eldershaw said when clients have gone to appointments, for example for an X-ray, she's hearing that the turnaround has been fairly quick.

"The bottom line is you need to do reminders for a person living with dementia because there's increased confusion.They need to certainly be thinking up hygienic practices from one day to the next," she said.

"Demonstrating that thorough handwashing and using the alcohol-based hand sanitizers is really, really key."

For caregivers of those with dementia, Hendricken-Eldershaw recommends placing reminder signs in the home and having contingency plans in case a caregiver gets sick. 

She said the society is not closed and is providing support through phone and email.

"We certainly have a number of strategies to help people manage time, how do they stay healthy, that clarity between social distancing and social isolation and just the use of technology to stay connected and knowing that we're here to support you. I think that's key," she said.

Officials with Health PEI are encouraging Islanders to call ahead if they have any questions about their medical appointments throughout the pandemic. 

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.

  • Practise physical distancing.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.