Three years in: COVID’s impact on health care

By Vivian Collings
Almost exactly three years ago, Ontario declared a state of emergency, closing schools, businesses, and advising against non-essential travel; even to the grocery store.
Ontarians were limited to only having close interaction with those in their household.
Case counts climbed, increasing death tolls were displayed across the screens of televisions, and we feared the word “outbreak”.
Although the initial quake may be over, the COVID-19 pandemic has left remaining aftershocks that will be felt for years, even decades, to come.
Our health care system was one of the hardest-hit sectors.
At our hospitals, emergency departments flooded with COVID cases, health care workers became overloaded and burnt out, and beds and other essentials were in short supply.
In our long term care homes, residents were isolated, and outbreaks were rampant.
Seventy-four per cent of Ontarians experienced increased mental health challenges. There was a 70 per cent increase in opiod-related deaths. Sixty per cent of cancer-related surgeries were cancelled following the huge influx of COVID cases.
Health care facilities and workers were pushed in the middle of the battle zone.
Haliburton County was not immune. Carolyn Plummer, CEO of Haliburton Highlands Health Services (HHHS), said every service they provide was affected from the very start in March of 2020.
“From our emergency departments to our long-term care homes, as well as our community programs and services, everyone had to adapt very quickly to not only new circumstances, but also to public health and government guidance that changed rapidly – sometimes on a daily and even hourly basis,” Plummer told the Echo.
She said all facilities were locked down almost immediately, and those hit especially hard were residents living in long-term care homes and their families who weren’t able to visit them.
Despite the grim situation, HHHS was able to overcome many hurdles. They worked hard to provide the best health care under unprecedented circumstances.
“As the virus and our understanding of it progressed and evolved, our teams kept adapting. Different precautions were put in place, such as active screening at our facilities, the physical separation of our facilities to protect our most vulnerable, and the use of personal protective equipment in all settings,” Plummer said.
She said the introduction of vaccines to protect against the virus changed the battle. They meant that more interaction could happen within HHHS facilities; connections that softened the increase of mental health challenges due to isolation.
“The ability of the vaccines to provide strong protection from the most devastating consequences meant that we could look for ways to re-instate important connections between our staff teams, patients, residents and their families, clients, and our volunteers,” Plummer said.
Like most health services in the province, HHHS continues to be challenged by staff and funding shortages.
“The challenge of recruiting and retaining staff, as the country experiences significant health human resource shortages, continues to be the most lasting impact of the pandemic on our team and our operations,” Plummer said. “I hope that we will be able to encourage decision-makers to find long-term, sustainable solutions to the staffing and funding challenges we face, so these services can grow and be strengthened in years to come.”
Lessened restrictions mean that even more face-to-face interactions with patients can happen. Separation from loved ones was one of the hardest things to endure over the past three years, and Plummer is thankful for restored connections.
Our health care workers were dealt one of the hardest hands during the pandemic, and HHHS’ CEO is proud of all health care teams in Haliburton County.
“While these were extremely challenging times, I continue to be incredibly proud and grateful for how our teams responded. No matter what, they put the health and safety of our patients, residents, and clients first, while protecting their colleagues, their families, and themselves. I will never forget their efforts and I hope I am not alone,” she said.