Thunder Bay

COVID-19 can 'completely overwhelm' hospital, health system: medical officer at Thunder Bay health unit says

The medical officer of health at Thunder Bay District Health Unit warned Thursday morning that COVID-19 has the potential to "completely overwhelm the health system and the hospital."

"Moving away from considering if the pandemic will impact us here, to when it will come here," unit CEO says

Dr. Janet DeMille, medical officer of health and CEO of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, speaks at a COVID-19 briefing on Thursday morning. (Gord Ellis/CBC Thunder Bay)

The medical officer of health at Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU) warned Thursday morning that COVID-19 has the potential to "completely overwhelm the health system and the hospital."

Dr. Janet DeMille made the remarks at a briefing being at the TBDHU on Thursday morning.

While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Thunder Bay, there is one confirmed case in Sudbury.

There is also concern about the virus making its way to the city, as several people from Thunder Bay attended the Prospectors, Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference, which took place in Toronto on March 2 and 3.

The individual from Sudbury who has been confirmed to have COVID-19 was also at the conference, Sudbury health officials said. However,  health officials confirmed Thursday that the man was not infectious when he was attending the conference. 

The TBDHU has asked anyone from Thunder Bay who attended the PDAC conference to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

At Thursday's briefing, the TBDHU provided guidelines to help people avoid contracting the virus.

The guidelines include:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue or sleeve, and get rid of used tissues immediately
  • Clean and disinfect commonly-touched surfaces, such as door handles, phones, keyboards, and steering wheels
  • Masks are only recommended for people with symptoms

The TBDHU also recommends avoiding shaking hands, keeping a distance of two metres from anyone showing symptoms, staying home if you're feeling ill, and reducing exposure to crowded, public places.

'No longer in normal times'

On Thursday, DeMille said it can take anywhere from one to 14 days for an individual infected by COVID-19 to show symptoms.

DeMille said she believes the risk of getting the virus in Thunder Bay is currently "fairly low."

"We have no concrete indication that there's any community spread," she said.

However, she added, "it's a matter of when."

"I have been moving away from considering if the pandemic will impact us here, to when it will come here," DeMille said. "The shift in my thinking was reinforced particularly by the events in the last two weeks. I would say that we are no longer in normal times. We can't see it that way and we need to be informed and we need to prepare."

The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, is currently in its first phase, and the goal is to contain the spread by quickly identifying individuals who have the virus.

While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Thunder Bay, the TBDHU remains in containment mode, DeMille said.

"This approach does rely on people coming forward and identifying themselves as potentially having risk factors for being exposed, and then taking the appropriate precautions to not transmit the virus to other people," she said.

Community spread 'can be quite a surge'

Nobody is immune to the virus, DeMille said, and it can spread quickly when people are in close contact. COVID-19 can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and droplets containing the virus are "expelled into the air," and hit another person.

"When it starts spreading in the community, the number of people infected can increase very quickly in a short period of time," she said. "That can be quite a surge."

COVID-19 can cause "serious health issues" in 15-20 per cent of people who contract it, DeMille said. Those included older people, age 60-plus, and individuals with underlying medical conditions.

"These are our parents, our grandparents, our family members, and our fellow community members," she said. "We have a collective responsibility to ensure that that doesn't happen."

Elsewhere in Thunder Bay, St. Joseph's Care Group announced it was implementing mandatory COVID-19 screening at Hogarth Riverview Manor and Bethammi Nursing Home effective Wednesday.

In Toronto on Thursday, the Ontario government announced it was improving access to screening for the virus, expanding capacity for testing, and "implementing new initiatives to keep the public and frontline workers safe."

The province said it will establish dedicated assessment centres in areas where a high number of tests are being conducted. Thunder Bay is not included on the list of cities that will host the first wave of centres; the province said regions without an assessment centre will still be serviced by their local hospital.

The province has also approved new physician billing codes, which the government said will allow doctors to perform telephone assessments, keeping patients at home rather than requiring them to go to a clinic.

Ontario also plans to launch an online COVID-19 self-assessment tool in the coming days. That test, when available, will be located on the province's COVID-19 webpage.

The province is also working with Telehealth to ensure the service has adequate resources, and providing "one-time mitigation funding for an additional calendar year for public health units, which gives a 10 per cent increase to the municipality funding dedicated to these units."