By Chris Pickup

Haldimand Norfolk’s Medical Officer of Health (MoH), Shankar Nesathurai fielded questions Tuesday from Haldimand councillors wanting some guidance as to when COVID-19 restrictions might be loosened.

The MoH had been invited to join a virtual council meeting to provide an update on conditions in the county.

It all comes down to “ring fencing the elderly who are at highest risk,” he said. “We have to break the chain of transmission .. from travel to co-workers to child to mother to grandparents, which can be potentially catastrophic.”

All but two deaths in the county are related to Anson Place in Hagersville, he noted, where he meets with the managers every day. “It’s challenging to manage such an outbreak but we’re doing all we can.”

A conference call with other managers of nursing homes elicited reports of shortages of personal protective gear, and tenuous supply chains. Some strategies have been to purchase a machine that can reprocess masks, and making gowns to mitigate shortages.

A major factor in managing LTC and retirement homes is their architecture, such as at Anson Place. “Many were built a long time ago, and four beds in one large room separated by curtains, is common,“ Nesathurai commented.

LTCs also struggle with finding staff. Staff get sick. A number of staff who test positive show no symptoms. An emerging trend is to hire paramedic students to help. Also some previously positive staff have now tested negative and can be brought back.

Caledonia’s Dan Lawrence was concerned about the front line workers. “Are they getting help? It’s a very stressful position,” he noted.

Nesathurai said local hospitals have reasonable programs in place and the Health Unit has services to help workers in psychological distress. “They have two levels of struggle,” he pointed out. “Workload, and having to face the reality they could become sick themselves. We have resources.”

A new virus testing site should soon be opening at Dunnville hospital. When up and running, the procedure for testing will be to call your doctor who will call public health who will tell you to self-isolate and get a test organized. These cases will be managed as they present.

Dunnville, with a lot of elderly people, can expand capacity at the hospital if needed, using an offsite clinical area. The hospital is prepared if such a scenario has to come to fruition, Nesathurai said.

There is a shortage of ventilators, which a small percentage need. If people need resources, Norfolk has 15 basic ventilators.

“I’ve lived HIV, SARS, H1N1 .. we just have to work hard to get through this,” he added.

As for loosening the rules, restrictions have been put in place by the province. The public health unit has taken a conservative approach in this health district, the MoH said. “It’s a matter of risk versus benefits.” COVID-19 data overall, minus Anson, is fairly evenly spread throughout the district, he noted.

“Our measures are having effect. I’m cautiously optimistic, but we have to think about the rest of the province. There are hidden consequences. We need a rational strategy and prioritize what we do first. We can’t make inferences. There are multiple asymptomatic people.”

Dunnville’s Rob Shirton wanted to know about the possibility of running children’s recreational programs this summer. “Taking off Anson, which is skewing the numbers, we’re pretty limited in the number of cases in Haldimand,” he said.

But county staffer Mike Evers pointed out “the county is usually bringing in staff for training right now, and we’re a long way from being able to do this.”

Mayor Ken Hewitt said businesses wondering if they’re classed as essential or non essential should as a first step contact MPP Toby Barrett.

“There are grey areas, and we should be looking at how we can allow businesses to operate in a way that meets those challenges. We’re possibly looking to open some trails or parks .. people have different attitudes as things are evolving.”