As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, those in the healthcare system are urging people to help ‘flatten the curve’—to reduce the spike in cases normally seen during an infectious disease outbreak—with frequent and thorough handwashing, maintaining social distancing when out in the community, and self-isolating at home if you have symptoms of the virus.
Some may never know if they’ve contracted COVID-19. Only those who meet specific criteria are being tested, noted Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU). That’s because as demand for testing has increased exponentially—Public Health Ontario is doing more than 1,000 tests per day, he said—there’s been a shortage of swabs as well as, to some degree, personal protective equipment.
“Given the shortage, there’s a focus on the testing being prioritized,” said Gardner. How it is prioritized is in flux, he added. “The bottom line is there’s a limited supply and there is going to be some decision-making around who gets tested and who doesn’t.”
Currently, anyone who is asymptomatic will not be tested. The same is true for people with mild symptoms—they should isolate at home until 24 hours after symptoms resolve. Those with worsening or severe symptoms should call ahead before visiting any healthcare facility, and let them know about their travel history and symptoms—COVID-19 symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing—so that they can take proper infection-control measures. Healthcare providers will then determine, based on criteria at that time, whether a test is warranted.
On Sunday, the number of confirmed cases in Ontario had risen to more than 140, 41 of them new on that reporting day. As of 10:30 a.m. this morning, there have been 180 confirmed cases in Ontario, another 1,567 are awaiting test results, and 9,415 have tested negative to date. (The status of cases is being updated twice per day at ontario.ca.)
“The great majority of [cases] are still travel related, but I think we’re on the cusp of starting to see some local transmission,” said Gardner, making efforts to contain the virus critical.
“The key thing right now,” he added, is for anyone with symptoms “to go into home isolation with those symptoms and not expose other people. And then to use telephone means to connect with the system through Telehealth or their primary care provider, with further questions about the need to be tested or not.” The Telehealth Ontario number is 1-866-797-0000. There is also a self-assessment tool available online here.
Dr. Gardner stressed that for anyone experiencing severe symptoms, like shortness of breath, and those who have medical complications, or who are older than 60 or 65 and more likely to develop complications, “then going to the emergency department would be an important thing to do. We certainly need to be able to provide care for people that may be experiencing severe disease.” Be sure to call ahead—the number for the Huntsville District Memorial Hospital is 705-789-2311.
Assessment sites are currently being set up within Simcoe Muskoka, the first of which opened in Barrie on March 16. There are five others, including one in Huntsville, awaiting activation. “Ultimately it requires the approval of the province for them to be activated,” said Gardner. “When they’re up and running, that’s an option for people to go and get assessed as well and possibly be referred for testing.”
The health unit is also “doing a lot of messaging to avoid people being in contact with each other in the community. Social distancing, the closure of schools is meant to achieve that,” said Gardner, as is the discontinuation of events larger than 50 people, discouragement of other events, and closing of municipal facilities. “All of that’s meant to reduce the likelihood of transmission through contact. It’s a big effort.”
Dr. Gardner noted that about 80 per cent of cases will have fairly mild disease and will recover without care. “So the key would be that they recover without exposing others.”
That includes people in their own household, which can prove difficult. They may have already been exposed to the virus, but take precautions nonetheless, he advised. “Find room for them alone, a washroom that’s their own, their own utensils, their own linens and such. And if [others in the household] can stay at home, all the better. At a minimum they need to be self-monitoring, identifying whether or not they’re developing symptoms, putting themselves in isolation if they develop symptoms, and seeking medical attention if they need it based on severity.”
He said that the health unit and the healthcare system as a whole learned a lot from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, from how to best communicate with healthcare providers and the public, to how best to deploy staff.
“So what did we learn from that? To focus. If we have to redeploy everybody to manage this situation, we just have to accept that and put on hold all of those other things that we normally do, give notice to the community that we’re doing that, and deliver on this job.”
Learn more about COVID-19 efforts within the health unit here.
For ongoing updates about the virus in the Huntsville area, check here regularly: How COVID-19 is impacting the Huntsville area: cases, cancellations, news, and commentary
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