As hospitals and health care facilities across Canada prepare to handle the spread of coronavirus seen around the world, some doctors are worried about a potential flood of patients hitting emergency rooms.
Dr. Jeff Powis, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the Michael Garron Hospital, in Toronto is planning to open a 14-room COVID-19 screening clinic in partnership with family doctors, which is located in a nearby family medicine clinic.
It could be capable of screening several hundred people daily who believe they might have COVID-19, but who may have colds, or other respiratory infections common during the winter.
The same practice was used during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and Powis said hospitals across the country should work quickly to bring them back this time around.
“This should be something that every health unit across the province replicates, and I know that they are working on it, but the pace needs to be accelerated,” he told CTV News.
Over the past week, Powis said his emergency unit has seen a rise in patients coming in to check their coughs or fever for signs of a possible coronavirus infection.
The clinic allows patients to be screened away from the emergency room, freeing it up to help only the most critically ill patients.
“As people's anxieties and concerns increase about COVID-19, that is going to pack our emergency rooms with people who don't need the emergency room and who could be seen in an assessment centre,” he said.
“My commitment has always been to stay one step ahead of this and in my mind this is the time to build community capacity to maximize the availability in our emergency department for patients who need the hospital.”
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Powis is hoping to land some additional funding to cover the costs of operating the facility.
To date, there have been 34 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, primarily in Ontario and British Columbia, but Powis believes it’s only a matter of time before a large-scale outbreak similar to those seen in other countries happens domestically.
“I think most of us believe, in my field, that it's inevitable and it's best to be prepared for when that happens,” he said.
Other facilities across the country are also preparing for a possible outbreak, including at Ontario’s Scarborough Health Network, which already has 18 beds dedicated for those infected with COVID-19. Still, Powis believes Canada needs about another month’s worth of preparation to be fully ready.
“We're in a better position than we were two weeks ago, but I think we need to accelerate this pace of preparation,” he said.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, a clinician scientist and infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, said infection specialists across the country are working on detailed preparedness plans, ranging from how many masks to bring in to how many beds are needed.
“There’s a great deal of preparedness going on in every single province,” she said. “Every day, preparedness committees both at the government and health authority levels get together to decide what to do in the next day or two to keep up with the rapidly changing environment of the virus.”
While most people infected with COVID-19 can recover at home without any severe symptoms, the virus has proven dangerous for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, such as respiratory diseases and diabetes. Given this, long-term care homes are also taking extra precautions to avoid infection.
Jennifer Lyle, the CEO of Safecare BC, an association dedicated to ensure safe working conditions for continuing care workers in British Columbia, said there are already several policies in place for continued care facilities to handle these sorts of outbreaks.
“We have a practice B.C. of having stockpiles for things like outbreaks, potential pandemics,” she said. “These are lessons learned from pervious issues.”
“What we are hearing reports of is people having difficulty ordering new supplies in. That’s something we just want to be really proactive on.”
Lyle added that one of the keys for staying ahead of the virus is to keep all staff informed of what to do in case of a positive case, including how to handle the virus and what kind of disinfectant should be used.
Lyle is also urging the public to avoid care homes if they are sick and instead come back to visit a family member when they feel better.
Helle Johansen, director of care at The New Vista Society, a collection of seniors’ facilities in North Vancouver, said if someone becomes sick, everyone on the same floor is monitored daily.
“We will isolate residents right away if we see that they have symptoms,” she said. “We will make sure we do nasal swabs and get them sent to our laboratories to make sure it is a true case or not.”
Even with these preventative measures, Barrett believes the general Canadian population plays the biggest role when it comes to virus preparedness.
“The key part to containing this virus and its spread rests with every single Canadian,” she said.
“If you are sick, you stay away from other people. If you have a cough and fever, stay at home. If you’re coughing, use your elbow or a tissue.”