Health officials confident northern mixed facilities can contain spread of COVID-19

Unlike in southern Saskatchewan, the pandemic response plan doesn't include any COVID-dedicated facilities. The province is confident its facilities, such as the Victoria Hospital, are large enough to keep COVID and non-COVID staff and patients apart.

Prince Albert's Victoria Hospital. (Herald file photo)

Integrated Northern Health defended its pandemic response plan which isn’t calling for any dedicated COVID-19 facilities during a technical briefing with reporters Thursday.

Vice president integrated northern health Andrew McLetchie answered questions that mainly focused on the makeup of facilities, patient transfers and ensuring adequate care in northern communities as the Saskatchewan Health Authority provided more details on regional plans to manage its response to the COVID-19 virus.

While some southern parts of the province and some hospitals in the Regina and Saskatoon areas are slated to take only COVID-19 positive patients, no such plans are being put in place for anything north of Saskatoon. 

In the integrated north area, there will be no facility closures and no COVID-only hospitals.

Some hospitals, such as those in Shellbrook, Rosthern, Tisdale and Porcupine Plain, will be for non-COVID patients only. Other hospitals, such as Prince Albert, Melfort, Nipawin, La Ronge and La Loche, will see a mixed patient cohort. Contingency plans could see a COVID-only hospital open in the region, but that’s only for the direst scenario, not the one that’s leading the health system’s plan.

“I think the general rationale was a lot of our facilities are quite large, like Prince Albert, Battlefords and Lloydminster and they serve rather diverse populations,” McLetchie said Thursday.

“Within those facilities, we’re able to separate staff and patients effectively to not create cross-contamination. We’ll be working with this on a provincial level and our strategy of mitigation and approach  that would allow us to provide (care) within the mixed population.”

The lack of a COVID-only facility north of Saskatoon is something that also stuck out to NDP leader Ryan Meili.

“If they aren’t going to have separate facilities, how will they be cordoning off facilities and make it very safe to have patients who are not COVID-positive int he same hospital without any likelihood of contracting the virus?” he asked.

“That will have to do with either separate facilities or separate areas and separate staff where you don’t have staff going between the areas. These are some of the questions we’ll want to see answered in the coming days.”

McLetchie assured reporters Thursday that such plans were in place for mixed facilities, such as Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital.

“Our main strategy is to try to ensure we have plans with our staff and physicians to dedicate resources to both groups of patients, to separate groups within the hospital and ensure we’re delivering services to both groups,” he said.

“Appropriate use of PPE is key to this and our staff has all been trained on that. We’re also ensuring the flows within the hospital, staff and patients aren’t connecting with each other in parts of the building where we would risk cross-infection.”

PPE also came up in discussions about the Northern Inter Tribal Health Authority (NITHA). That health authority is operated by a collection of First Nations in northern Saskatchewan. They said earlier this week that they were lacking appropriate PPE. McLetchie said he and his coworkers are in close contact with NITHA to address their concerns.

“We have had a relationship … since the health authority started and we‘re doing our best to connect with them and address the concerns they have,” he said.

“ We have a meeting this afternoon with a few of the health directors with NITHA and it’s something we’re committed to working with.”

The other questions related to patient flow. The province said it would work with load management to ensure that no hospital would be over capacity. That could mean moving patients from northern and remote communities into larger urban centres such as Regina and Saskatoon.

McLetchie said that would likely be managed with ambulance services by working with paramedics trained on the necessary PPE. For remote communities, he added, it might mean a mix of ground and air ambulance services.

Some cases have already popped up in remote northern communities, he said. Two of those were in Southend, Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Peter Beatty confirmed to media outlets earlier in the pandemic. The first case was due to international travel and then subsequent cases were due to some community spread.

The first patient was self-isolated and recovered at home. McLetchie said those first cases were treated partly in remote communities and partly outside of them.

“We were very impressed by the response of the northern community that was involved … to mitigate the spread of it,” he said.

He added that the province hopes to have remote testing capability set up to enable faster testing response times in the far north in the coming week or two. That service is being arranged by provincial laboratory services.