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COVID surge in the fall is possible, health unit says

Public health unit prepared to handle thousands of cases, doctor says
20200526-APH summer stock-DT-06
Algoma Public Health. Darren Taylor/SooToday

Despite the current enjoyment of summer weather, no COVID-19 mask mandates or lockdowns and a return to activities such as travel plans, a sense of worry remains that another surge of the virus or another type of pandemic is coming.

The Biden administration is worried as the U.S. President seeks $88 billion for pandemic preparedness.

Closer to home that concern was shared locally at Algoma Public Health’s board meeting held virtually Wednesday evening.  

“My concern is, and I guess I’m a skeptic, but I don’t really believe that we’re out of COVID-19. I don’t think we’re going to be out of it come the fall. I think it’s going to come back and there’s going to be at least two more waves before we’re done with this thing,” said APH board member Ed Pearce.

“I’m worried about the effect that will have on our staff moving forward…I’m just concerned that we’re trying to get people back to work with a sense of normality. COVID comes roaring back when we all start getting into colder weather and staff isn’t ready for it. I’m really concerned about that and I don’t know what kind of contingency planning you can do with that but hopefully it’s in the back of your mind going forward,” Pearce said to Dr. John Tuinema, APH acting medical officer of health and CEO.

“I absolutely agree with your concerns and we share those concerns as well,” Tuinema responded.

“As far as the fall goes we are finishing up our surge plan for how we will handle an influx of cases. My thinking at this point, and again there can always be a curveball, but we would manage it a fair bit differently. It won’t be as intensive as it was with the Delta wave. We’re able to handle thousands of cases now at a time versus when things were a bit more in depth with Delta, where a couple of hundred cases would be enough to take over the entire agency,” Tuinema said.

The discussion stemmed from a presentation in the earlier portion of Wednesday’s board meeting in which it was announced APH will be undergoing a ‘Framework for COVID-19 Recovery’ for staff.

Senior APH staff described recovery as a process that takes lessons learned from the public health unit’s response to the pandemic and incorporates those into both current and future public health priorities.

That process will include APH employee input and will take time, the board was told by Antoniette Tomie, APH director of corporate services and Laurie Zeppa, director of health promotion and prevention.

In the recovery process, APH will hold bi-weekly medical officer of health updates to all employees, all staff town halls, opportunities for employee feedback, team meetings and opportunities for employees to share their experiences with each other and lessons learned during the pandemic.

Apart from employee stress, another effect the pandemic had on APH was the creation of a backlog in regular public health work as APH focused on battling COVID.

The backlog included (as of November 2021): 

  • A one year waitlist (more than 100 people) for smoking cessation support 
  • Suspension of virtual prenatal classes
  • Backlog of routine food safety and safe water inspections
  • Backlog of more than 14,200 doses for school-based immunization
  • Backlog of 4,500 infant and childhood vaccines
  • 18-month backlog in school dental screenings 
  • More than 200 clients awaiting seniors’ dental services

With the pandemic eased, APH staff are catching up with that backlog.

“All staff have gone back to their home programs,” said Leo Vecchio, APH spokesperson in an email to SooToday Wednesday.

Regarding APH employees returning to work after working at home, Tuinema told the board “right now the majority of staff are working from home still.”

“There are a number of people who are working in person if they need to do inspections or need to be on site for maintenance or information technology, but we do currently have a plan to start bringing people back to the office. We’re just in the process of finalizing the timelines for staff. Our leadership team will be the first ones to go back to office and we’re looking for them to be in office in September. As far as the rest of the staff, we’re still working on that,” Tuinema said.

Tuinema, in his monthly report to the board, said APH is also working with Public Health Ontario, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, local communities, and First Nations to keep an eye on potential risks and keep residents of affected areas informed after a June 9 oil spill into the St. Marys River east of Algoma Steel and Great Lakes Power.

APH had issued a water advisory for all users of the St. Marys River but lifted that advisory Tuesday.