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PEI hospitals ‘weather the storm’ but brace for more COVID troubles

PEI hospitals appear to have weathered the worst of COVID-19’s recent omicron wave, says Dr. Michael Gardam, CEO of Health PEI.

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

Through research and his own personal experience, Gardam knew lifting restrictions would result in more cases.

“I’ve seen that happen six times in Ontario,” he said. “Each time the government eased restrictions, hospitalizations started to rise two weeks later. So that’s totally predictable.”

But he said the question is whether the healthcare system can handle that stress. In the case of PEI this spring, he said, that was the case.

“So far at PEI I’ve been incredibly pleasantly surprised to see that we’ve done it all really well,” said Gardam.

“Given all of our challenges, I thought that additional COVID admissions would really get us into trouble – but we weathered the storm and now the numbers are going down again.”

outbreaks and staff shortages

The system did not remain intact.

There are still two reported hospital outbreaks: one in Unit 2 at Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the other at Western Hospital.

“Even if no new cases emerge, we essentially have to wait 10 days after the last case to be able to say the outbreak is over,” says Dr. Michael Gardam. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

While these outbreaks are ongoing, Gardam said outbreak control systems had contained them quickly.

“But the catch is that while no new cases are popping up, we essentially have to wait 10 days after the last case to be able to say the outbreak is over,” he said.

There has also been an unprecedented number of illnesses among staff, he said, and this has led to the closure of some beds because there is no one available to care.

“I will wear a mask”

Gardam said governments need to find the balance between staying alive during COVID and the impact on the healthcare system.

He noted that mask wearing is still strongly recommended despite the lifting of mandates.

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

PEI expects a return to a more normal tourism season this year, which could result in almost 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 a lot of uncertainty right now.”

All in all, though, he’s not too worried about the summer. Typically, tourists do not seek healthcare while visiting the PEI and therefore do not have much impact on the system.

But he looks 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 is booster vaccines, which target new variants more effectively, he said.

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