As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose to six in Haliburton County as of press time April 15, the Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS) has responded with a series of unprecedented initiatives to tackle the pandemic on a local level.

In its weekly community update, released April 10, HHHS announced the expansion of the acute care unit in Haliburton to 21 beds, from 15, for COVID-related needs. They have also created a new, nine-bed, acute care unit in Minden for non-COVID-19-related admissions.

“Together, these 15 new Acute Care beds and the separation of our sites will help us be as prepared as possible for the anticipated increase in patients caused by COVID-19,” HHHS CEO Carolyn Plummer said.

In an interview with The Highlander April 14, Plummer conceded both moves have not been sanctioned or funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care but, “funding is something that’s going to be sorted out at a later date. I know it’s not unique to us. All hospitals are either establishing additional in-patient beds within their walls or in some cases setting up field hospitals.”

Plummer said while they’re asking residents with respiratory symptoms, such as cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and fever, who want to go to an emergency department to go to Haliburton – and those without respiratory symptoms to Minden, “no emergency will be turned away from either site.”

The HHHS president added that they are talking to regional hospitals several times a week. She said it isn’t a case of Haliburton and Minden hospitals not handling COVID-19 patients and immediately shipping them out of town to Lindsay or Peterborough, for example.

“At this point, all hospitals have been instructed that they need to be prepared to care for COVID patients.” She said it is about managing capacity. So, for example, if someone comes to a local hospital in acute distress, their job is to stabilize them and transfer them to a hospital with an intensive care unit. However, she said the Haliburton hospital can handle patients with moderate symptoms. In some cases, those with mild symptoms are sent home to self quarantine and heal.

“We all have to be ready to provide the care for these folks but we’re trying to do it in a way that makes sense given the nature of resources we have at each of our individual hospital sites,” Plummer said.

She added that HHHS has sufficient testing equipment and ventilators for now. She said the assessment centre that opened March 31 has had an increase in volume.

“At this point, it seems to be working okay. If we do need to increase capacity, we will look at that.”

She said they are monitoring the number of people going to the centre, and calls for appointments.

With news that the virus can be spread by shoes, Plummer said staff are changing clothes and shoes when they enter and exit any HHHS facility. They don a new pair of scrubs and footwear for their shifts. When they leave, they change out of them and HHHS has laundry facilities so staff are not wearing clothing home.

HHHS further announced a partnership with the Pinestone Resort and Conference Centre to supply separate accommodations to any staff who would prefer to stay there after their shifts, or because they’re working extra-long hours and commuting. Plummer said the accommodation would not be used by staff who have to self-isolate.

The CAO acknowledged community support, and thanked the public for offering to bring staff food, but said HHHS cannot accept food donations.

“If you, or someone you know, wishes to donate food, we encourage you to reach out to our local food banks (Central Food Network, Minden Food Bank, and Haliburton 4C’s Food Bank) to support local families in need during this difficult time.”

And while there has been a positive response to HHHS’s call for additional staff, Plummer said they are still looking for healthcare professionals. She said they have had people apply with no direct care experience. They’re helping out as observers and screeners at entranceways. “We’re still certainly looking for frontline, maintenance and housekeeping staff.”

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