P.E.I. hospitals ‘weather the storm,’ but preparing for more COVID trouble

P.E.I. hospitals appear to be through the worst of the recent Omicron wave of COVID-19, says Health P.E.I. CEO Dr. Michael Gardam.

The province lifted most public health restrictions on April 6, and the remaining major one — the mask mandate — was lifted a month later.

From research and his own personal experience, Gardam knew lifting restrictions would lead to more cases.

“I’ve witnessed that in Ontario six times,” he said. “Every time the government relaxed restrictions the hospitalizations two weeks later started to go up. So that’s entirely predictable.”

But he said the question is whether the health-care system can handle that stress. In P.E.I.’s case this spring, he said, it did.

“So far in P.E.I. I’ve been incredibly pleasantly surprised to see that we’ve done really well through all of this,” said Gardam.

“Given all of our challenges, I thought that having additional COVID admissions would really get us into trouble — but we’ve been able to weather the storm, and now numbers are going down again.”

Outbreaks and staff shortages

The system was not unscathed.

There are still two declared outbreaks in hospitals: one on Unit 2 in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the other at Western Hospital.

‘Even though we’re not seeing new cases pop up we have to wait, essentially, 10 days from the last case to be able to say that the outbreak is over,’ says Dr. Michael Gardam. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

While those outbreaks are ongoing, Gardam said the systems in place to control outbreaks contained them quickly.

“The catch is, though, that even though we’re not seeing new cases pop up we have to wait, essentially, 10 days from the last case to be able to say that the outbreak is over,” he said.

There has also been an unprecedented amount of illness among staff, he said, and that has led to the closure of some beds because no one is available to provide care.

‘I’ll be wearing a mask’

Gardam said governments need to find the balance between getting on with life during COVID and impact on the health-care system.

He noted that while mandates have been lifted, mask-wearing is still strongly recommended.

“I’ll be honest with you, if you see me out and about I’ll be wearing a mask,” he said. “I will do that until we get to the point that I’m very comfortable with the prevalence of respiratory illness on the Island.”

P.E.I. is expecting a return to a more normal tourism season this year, which could mean close to a million tourists arriving on the Island in July and August.

“We are certainly preparing for a difficult summer, but we don’t know how difficult it will be,” he said. “Nobody knows. There’s just a lot of uncertainty right now.”

On balance, however, he is not too concerned about the summer. Typically tourists do not seek health care while visiting P.E.I., and so don’t have much impact on the system.

But he is looking ahead to the fall, when many experts believe there will be another wave of COVID as it transitions into a seasonal illness like the flu.

One thing that could make a big difference, he said, is booster vaccines that more effectively target new variants.

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