Health agencies, school board prepare for COVID-19
By Sue Tiffin
An automated voice message on the answering machine of the Haliburton Family Medical Centre tells callers that if they are experiencing potential symptoms of COVID-19 – fever, cough, difficulty breathing – to avoid any unscheduled visits to the clinic. Instead of presenting to health-care centres and emergency rooms, they should contact the local health unit for an assessment by phone prior to arranging to be tested.
“If you have a fever, and/or a new onset of a cough, or difficulty breathing, and you have travelled internationally in the 14 days before the onset of the illness, or have had close contact with a confirmed or probable case of coronavirus, or close contact with a person with acute respiratory illness, who has travelled internationally in the 14 days before their symptom onset, please alert clinic staff immediately,” the phone message says.
Calling ahead first helps frontline staff take precautions prior to being exposed to anyone who might have the very contagious illness, which is still considered to be at low-risk of transmission in Canada, according to public health officials.
On Monday this week, Canada reported the first death related to COVID-19, in British Columbia, while Ontario reported 36 confirmed cases of the virus and World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the coronavirus is closer to causing a pandemic.
At press time, almost 116,000 cases of the virus had been reported by more than 100 countries worldwide, with most cases being noted in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Ontario’s first cases were reported at the end of January.
“The list of countries that are kind of the highest risk right now is getting fairly long and again the international travel could mean that you’re passing through, that you’ve been on a flight with someone else that has been in a high-risk country, through an airport, you name it,” said Kim Robinson, executive director, Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team, and office manager at the medical centre, who said that travel along with sickness is what can lead to an initial assessment.
Symptoms of COVID-19, which may take up to 14 days to appear after exposure and which might be mild, have included fever, cough, difficulty breathing and pneumonia in both lungs.
Robinson noted the information public health officials have is being updated frequently. “It’s changing, the landscape is changing daily with this outbreak, with this virus,” she said.
Should residents need further assessment, the public health unit will direct potential local cases of COVID-19 to centres that can do testing – right now, that means area hospitals, said Robinson, which have access to the tests, again calling ahead.
“Although the risk of becoming ill from COVID-19 continues to be low in Ontario, the local health unit and its community health partners are continuing to work together to ensure they are prepared should a case develop locally,” reads a joint media release on March 2 from Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Pine Ridge health partners.
The media statement said that the local health unit was working with other health institutions in the region to ensure all are up to date.
“This includes sharing resources like the evolving case definitions, testing protocols, as well as infection prevention and control guidance and support and updated fact sheets on COVID-19. As well, the health unit provides support to the health-care partners to ensure active screening protocols are in place and that appropriate health care staff have been fit tested for the proper protective equipment.”
“There have been a number of improvements made in the way we prepare for wide-spread illnesses since we experienced SARS,” said Dr. Lynn Noseworthy, medical officer of health for the HKPR District Health Unit, in the press release. “Across the province we have seen improvements in communication about the illness and cases, improved laboratory testing protocols and quicker test results shared with health professionals for the stringent contact follow-up and management involving potential cases. The bottom line is that we are prepared for if, and when, we may see a case locally.”
Noseworthy noted that seasonal respiratory illnesses, including influenza, are still circulating in the community.
A letter sent home to families on March 5 by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board noted the board is in “close contact with our two public health units and will continue to follow their guidance and recommendations regarding the spread of COVID-19.”
“If we hear of a case of COVID-19 in one of our buildings, we would take immediate direction from the local health unit,” Sinead Fegan, TLDSB communications officer told the Times.
The school board said it is taking steps to be sure it is prepared for the spread of the illness.
“Currently we are making sure that all surface areas in schools are cleaned daily,” read the letter home. “Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are being delivered to schools. School staff will monitor the use of these products by students. There will be immediate replacement of custodial staff if a custodian must be absent.”
The letter reminded the school community to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the same way they might prevent the spread of cold and flu, through preventative measures that include hand washing, cough and sneeze etiquette, by staying home when sick, keeping clean and encouraging healthy habits like eating well, being physically active and getting enough sleep.
“It is important to reassure your children about their personal safety and health,” said the letter home. “Telling children that it is OK to be concerned is comforting.”
March Break takes place next week, and the board noted the risk to Canadian travellers abroad is generally low but will vary depending on the destination, recommending that parents consult the travel section on Ontario’s web site or at Canada’s travel.gc.ca. Students are currently not going on field trips due to labour actions, however the TLDSB did cancel international school trips planned for March and April – none were planned from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School.
A Fenelon Falls Secondary School and Lindsay Collegiate and Vocational Institute trip to Berlin, Prague, Krakow and Budapest planned to depart April 10 was announced to be cancelled on March 3.
“This cancellation comes amid travel advisories for much of Europe and Asia and a number of actions taken by governments to try to contain any further spread of the virus,” said Larry Hope, director of education, in a letter to parents and students regarding the decision. “We recognize that this will be disappointing however we are not prepared to risk illness for unnecessary travel. The school is currently working with the travel company and with students to find an alternate time to reschedule the trip at a later date. If this is not possible, information will be provided about accessing a refund.”
For more information on COVID-19, contact the health unit at 1-866-888-4577, ext. 5020, or visit www.hkpr.on.ca. After hours, people can call Telehealth Ontario for medical advice toll-free at 1-866-797-0000. People are also encouraged to continue to rely on credible sources of information about COVID-19, including daily updates at The Ontario Ministry of Health website (www.ontario.ca/coronavirus) or the Public Health Agency of Canada website (www.canada.ca/coronavirus)