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Health unit taking additional actions to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant

Dec 15, 2021
SIMCOE MUSKOKA – As the highly transmissible Omicron variant takes hold in Ontario with modeling projections showing an alarming spread in the population, and as Simcoe Muskoka continues to see high rates of COVID-19, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) is taking further action to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of all residents and our limited health care resources.

SIMCOE MUSKOKA – As the highly transmissible Omicron variant takes hold in Ontario with modeling projections showing an alarming spread in the population, and as Simcoe Muskoka continues to see high rates of COVID-19, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) is taking further action to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of all residents and our limited health care resources.

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and its variants is through vaccination. As cases of Omicron increase, there is emerging evidence that while two doses provide some protection against infection and hospitalization, it is not as strong as for other variants, so there is an urgent need for booster doses for everyone who is eligible to receive one, particularly for the older population. The health unit is stepping up its efforts to increase the level of vaccination amongst residents over the next few weeks, focusing on providing booster doses for eligible individuals, including those aged 50 years and older who received their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine at least 168 days ago, while maintaining access to the important first dose vaccination for 5 to 11-year-olds. To accomplish this ambitious campaign, the health unit is significantly increasing the number of appointments at its community clinics and is collaborating closely with its various health care and pharmacy partners to greatly increase access to COVID-19 vaccines in many locations for eligible individuals. The health unit is also placing all non-COVID-19-related programs and services on hold so that staff can be redeployed to support the COVID-19 vaccination efforts, while maintaining basic COVID-19 case and contact management, outbreak management, enforcement, phone line, surveillance and communications response.

Booster vaccines are available at community clinics by appointment and can be booked through the COVID-19 Vaccination Portal or by calling the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900. COVID-19 vaccinations are also available at the Cottage Country Family Health Team in Gravenhurst and the Algonquin Family Health Team in Huntsville, Couchiching Ontario Health Team Clinic, some health care providers and family health teams, select pharmacies, the GO-VAXX Bus, and some Indigenous-led clinics. All other eligible individuals, including children five to 11 years, who have not yet received a first, second or third dose of vaccine are encouraged to do so as soon as possible and may also book an appointment for one of these options.

The health unit is also preparing to implement further restrictions on the number of people who can gather as another strategy to reduce the spread of the virus, given that two dose vaccination status cannot not be relied upon for protection against the Omicron variant (with a third dose being needed).

“Unfortunately, the easing of provincial restrictions in October allowing larger social gatherings and colder temperatures bringing people indoors has led to more close contact interactions, which have contributed to the higher case counts and more hospitalizations locally,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, SMDHU’s medical officer of health. “I am particularly concerned about the high rates of COVID-19 transmission locally at the same time we are seeing the surge in cases across Ontario with the Omicron variant for which a third dose of vaccination is required for protection. There are already great demands on our healthcare services in our community and decisive action is needed now to prevent our situation from becoming dire.”

With cases of Omicron doubling every three days throughout the province and set to outpace the Delta variant, the effects of the virus are being felt throughout the healthcare system.

“With the recent rise in overall COVID-19 in our region, along with the rapidly emerging threat of the Omicron variant, we are concerned that access to necessary hospital services may be at risk,” said Carmine Stumpo, President and CEO, Orillia Soldier’s Memorial Hospital on behalf of the six hospitals in Simcoe Muskoka. “Hospitals currently are still recovering from previous delays in accessing care, continue to support COVID-related supports like testing centres and vaccination clinics and coping with staff shortages on a regular basis. Front-line and support staff in hospitals across the region have been stretched well beyond their usual capacity for an extended period of time. Any further increase in hospitalization associated with a COVID-19 surge will create significant capacity issues region-wide."

To address the expected surge of Omicron cases and to protect public health and healthcare capacity, the health unit has prepared a new Letter of Instruction (LOI) and Section 22 Order for all residents, employers, businesses, and organizations in Simcoe Muskoka that would reduce capacity limits for certain business types, including restaurants/bars, event spaces and indoor sports and recreational fitness facilities. Private social gatherings would also be limited as would capacity at weddings, funerals and religious services.

“I intend to issue these local instructions and orders within this week if the provincial government does not announce broad province-wide restrictions and other public health measures to stem the rise of Omicron,” stated Dr. Gardner, noting that the instructions and orders would come into effect on Monday, December 20. “If we are to manage Omicron with any success, it will be critical that along with these additional restrictions that reduce physical interaction as much as possible in all settings, that everyone continues to comply with the existing public health measures.”  

Existing public health measures include staying home when feeling ill and getting tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19, maintaining a physical distance of at least 2 metres from those living outside of your household, wearing a mask indoors and outdoors when physical distancing is not possible, covering your cough, and washing your hands regularly.

To learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and current public health measures and requirements, visit smdhu.org/covid19.

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Additional quotes

Janice Skot, President and CEO, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre:

“Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) has seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 activity and is currently facing significant capacity challenges which impede our ability to provide timely care to Simcoe Muskoka residents. Wait times in our Emergency department can often be long, the demand for inpatient beds continues to grow and with more area facilities experiencing outbreak, this burden will continue to grow,” says Janice Skot, RVH president and CEO. “Given the rapid spread and increasing threat of the Omicron variant, RVH fully supports additional public health measures introduced by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. We know these measures, while difficult, are necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19 and further protect our communities.”

Natalie Bubela, President and CEO, Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare:

“In Muskoka, the recent spread of COVID-19 is the most concerning it has been in our region since the start of the pandemic,” says Natalie Bubela, President & CEO at Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare. “Our hospitals are already facing significant occupancy challenges with patients requiring hospital care unrelated to COVID. Our teams are tired from the ongoing workload and also the personal toll of this pandemic. The time is now to do everything we can to control the numbers and reduce the spread to protect our loved ones, and ensure our hospitals can respond to a potential community surge in COVID-19 hospitalization.”

Jody Levac, President and CEO, Stevenson Memorial Hospital:

“The increase in COVID-19 cases in our community and across the region has resulted in numerous capacity challenges,” says Jody Levac, President and CEO, Stevenson Memorial Hospital (SMH). “As always, SMH is here to provide high quality health care services to those who need it, but we will continue to be challenged in our current space if the numbers continue to rise, resulting in increased hospitalizations. At SMH, we are still recovering from previous delays in accessing care, while trying to continue to support COVID-related activities such as our Assessment Center. We have recently increased the daily operations of the Assessment Center to meet local demand. The hospital is also coping with staff shortages on a regular basis. Frontline and support staff have been stretched well beyond their usual capacity for an extended period of time. On behalf of Stevenson Memorial Hospital, I support the Public Health restrictions that the SMDHU are implementing to help decrease the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce the strain on hospitals in our region.”

Gail Hunt, President and CEO, Georgian Bay General Hospital:

“Much like hospitals across the region, Georgian Bay General Hospital (GBGH) is feeling the growing burden from the pandemic,” says Gail Hunt, president and CEO, GBGH. “Over the past few weeks our hospital has seen significantly more COVID-positive admissions and COVID-related Emergency department visits.  Of particular concern is the strain increased cases puts on our limited health human resources heading into the holidays. We also know that greater spread in the community will mean some staff may contract the virus or need to stay home to care for loved ones who have. The combination of these factors contribute to GBGH supporting enhanced pubic health precautions at this time.”

Carmine Stumpo, President and CEO, Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital:

“Protecting hospital capacity is critical at this stage,” said Carmine Stumpo, President and CEO of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital. “Both our infrastructure and our human resources capacities are being strained to the limit right now. The new variant is moving fast and we are in full support of the Health Unit’s decision to move swiftly to implement proven measures that have worked to slow the spread of COVID-19 in previous waves.” 

Norah Holder, President and CEO, Collingwood General and Marine Hospital:

“Protecting patients, employees, physicians and keeping surgical programs running for the benefit of all those who have been waiting for extended periods of time, is vital for Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, and our community,” said Norah Holder, CGMH President and CEO. “CGMH supports the new measures, as we continue to face health human resource challenges, while trying to add extra employees in preparation for a potential winter surge. Inpatient occupancy has been steadily rising over the past few weeks and we are hopeful these new measures will help slow the spread of the virus and provide hospitals with the much needed capacity to care for sick patients, along with the influx of patients to emergency departments that are commonly seen over the holiday period and winter months.”

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