On Wednesday afternoon, the local Board of Health met for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and while the general message was that the pandemic response has been good, it’s not come without cost. Many of the regular programs at Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph have been interrupted due to the pandemic, and the literal price tag to protect us from COVID might be close to $1 million.
David Kingma, the Director of Administrative Services, reviewed the fiscal picture for the first quarter of 2020, and the good news is that public health is saving considerably since its not running most of its regular programs and inspections. The bad news is that the savings are not keeping pace with the pandemic expenditures.
“To give you a sense of what those costs look like, although they were only about $65,000 at the end of quarter one, they’re actually closer to a million dollars as of last Friday,” Kingma said.
Kingma told the board that four-fifths of that million dollars is for staffing, including additional temporary staff brought on as part of the response, operating seven days a week as opposed to five, and overtime payouts for public health employees including senior staff. The rest of the money, about $200,000, went to stocking up on COVID-19 supplies.
“We don’t anticipate those costs to continue at the rate we have been going in the first two months as things have flattened out somewhat,” Kingma said, adding that the pandemic struck in the last few weeks of reporting for the first quarter. “In the future quarterly updates, you will notice an increase in costs related to the COVID-19 responses.”
Councillor June Hofland, who is one of the City of Guelph’s representatives on the public health board, asked Kingma if there is any remittance coming to public health from the Government of Ontario to compensate for those unexpected costs.
“We’ve received two letters so far from the Ministry [of Health] sharing with us that they have put aside $100 million dollars for public health for COVID-19-related response costs,” Kingma said. “The preliminary information we’ve gotten is that at the end of the second quarter, we’ll be required to submit our COVID-19-related costs up until that point, and that we can hopefully expect to receive reimbursement in some form in the third quarter of this year.”
Kingma warned though that it’s still not clear if public health units will get a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement for pandemic expenses, or if the Province will only cover a portion of it.
In terms of the actual management of the pandemic, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer said that the COVID-19 assessment clinics in Guelph and Orangeville are now doing about 200 tests per day now since the Province loosened restrictions on who’s able to get a test. She also said that Guelph’s COVID-19 assessment centre has begun expanding its array of medical services.
“Now they are able to do chest x-rays, write prescriptions, and really screen out people who they don’t think have COVID but might have other respiratory conditions and actually provide treatment for them as well,” Mercer said. “It’s really pivoting into a bit of a one-stop shop to manage all people with respiratory conditions, including COVID-19.”
COVID-19 has had a wide-ranging effect on the various services and programs offered by public health, and Director of Community Health and Chief Nursing Officer Rita Isley explained that almost all personnel have been re-assigned to new roles for the pandemic. Director of Health Protection Chris Beveridge reported that public health will not meet their service accountability standards for 2020 because the COVID-response has blown such a big whole in those regular programs in just two-and-a-half months.
Dr. Mathew Tenenbaum , the associate medical officer of health, explained that they’re at least looking at how to get the Recovering Oral Health program back on track once school re-opens by examining various scenarios about how the work can be done while observing social distancing.
Speaking of what might happen after the curve’s been flattened, Mercer also lent some commentary to the possibility of regional re-openings of local economies.
“I look forward to more conversations with the Province about what regionalization looks like and allowing this to occur as part of the provincial reopening of our economy,” Mercer explained. “Restarting the economy is incredibly important because income is linked to health and having the economy reopened is linked to mental health as well as economic health and physical health. We’re not advocating for people to remain shut down.”
Mercer did warn that as the medical officer of health she can’t override provincial orders, but she would be able to step in and order for restrictive measures if Guelph, Wellington County, or Dufferin County were to re-open and see an increase in transmissions.”We need a safe re-opening and a safe way to get people back to work in order to keep people healthy,” she added.
Mercer also said that public health is offering advise on how to get more available childcare once the economy re-opens by connecting people looking for work, to families looking for childcare as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic shutdown.
In terms of good news though, the medical officer of health observed that, despite the pandemic, the last few months have actually seen fewer cases of other diseases. “The rest of the health unit as seen a remarkable decrease in infectious diseases with everybody being at home, and that’s a good thing,” Mercer observed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such low rates of STDs or STIs.”
CORRECTION (June 4, 2020): David Kingma was misidentified as another staff member in a previous version of this post.