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COVID vigilance is still essential

Posted Mar 29th, 2022

This is an opinion column by Niagara Health President and Chief Executive Officer, Lynn Guerriero published in the St. Catharines StandardNiagara Falls Review and Welland Tribune

The past two years have been difficult on so many levels. Niagara communities have endured more than their share of hardships throughout the ups and downs of this pandemic.

At Niagara Health, we have made many difficult decisions to manage the hospital’s response to the pandemic — decisions that, although necessary, have at times contributed to the hardships experienced by our patients and their loved ones, our staff and physicians.

On April 7, our mandatory vaccination policy takes effect, making it necessary for everyone who works at Niagara Health to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Vaccination is one of the most divisive issues to emerge from the pandemic. We have received a number of strongly worded letters from people who disagree with our decision.

I have the deepest respect for every member of our team and the sacrifices each of them has made to serve our community. Hospitals care for ill and vulnerable people, and we must hold ourselves to the highest standards. We must do everything possible to keep patients, staff and physicians safe.

Like Niagara Health, most hospitals have implemented vaccine mandates as a condition of employment. This is consistent with the Ontario chief medical officer of health’s recent message to organizations to continue to integrate COVID-19 vaccination policies into their operations.

This is not over, and we need to remain vigilant and open to the idea that subsequent vaccine boosters may be necessary. Vaccination can significantly reduce severe COVID-19 disease and minimize the impact on health-care capacity.

Since we announced in October 2021 our mandatory vaccination policy, our workforce rate has increased to 98.5 per cent from 92.8 per cent. We continue to see an increase, including in the past week, and I remain hopeful those who are not vaccinated will get their first dose before April 7.

Another challenging but necessary decision the executive team made was to temporarily close the Fort Erie Urgent Care Centre during the peak of the fifth wave. At that time, our three emergency departments were under extreme pressures due to high patient volumes and staff illness.

Extraordinary measures were needed to prioritize emergency care. In recommending this action, clinical leaders weighed the risks of temporarily closing the centre, which cares for people with non-emergency needs against the need to redeploy staff and physicians to provide essential emergency services. Other Ontario hospitals took similar measures.

Several times during the pandemic, we needed to limit the number of people inside our buildings to maintain physical distancing and limit potential spread. Most unfortunately, this meant restricting visitors at the bedside in inpatient units and asking patients to come alone for ED visits or appointments, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Some of the measures we adopted were the result of provincial directives. Others were made by Niagara Health and informed by our front-line clinical leaders and regional, provincial and federal experts in public health and infection prevention and control

It’s encouraging that our community is moving forward with reopening efforts.

For our part, we are seeing an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19, which was anticipated as public health measures eased. Our teams are managing this activity while also making headway to resume services that were paused and introduce new services, including a new virtual urgent care.

We are taking a cautious and phased approach as we move into this new stage of the pandemic, and we must continue to make decisions with the best interests of our patients and teams in mind.

Niagara residents should expect nothing less from us.

Niagara Health System