London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) says it’s implementing additional health and safety measures in a bid to clamp down on a growing multi-floor coronavirus outbreak at one of its hospitals.
In addition, organization officials stress that despite the outbreak, as well as cases involving at least 28 staff members, its facilities remain a safe place to seek and receive care.
“We are actively working in collaboration with our partners at Middlesex-London Health Unit to address the COVID-19 outbreaks at University Hospital and I want to thank everyone whose efforts are helping to reduce transmission,” said LHSC CEO Dr. Woods in a statement Friday.
For more than two weeks, LHSC has been grappling with outbreaks at its University Hospital (UH) campus that have impacted a total of seven units and infected a total of 61 people, according to the health unit. Eleven of the 17 cases reported by the health unit on Friday were linked to the hospital,
“Regrettably there have been two deaths associated with these outbreaks and LHSC shares its thoughts and sympathies with the families during this difficult time,” Woods said.
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Local health officials first declared an outbreak at UH on Nov. 10 in the hospital’s 4IP General Medicine unit. The next day, on Nov. 11, a separate outbreak was declared in 9IP Orthopedics.
While the Nov. 11 outbreak has since resolved and was only tied to six cases, the Nov. 10 outbreak in 4IP General Medicine has continued to grow, and as of Friday, encompassed at least six units on multiple floors of the hospital.
The two most recent units to be impacted by the Nov. 10 outbreak were reported on Friday: 4TU Multi-Organ Transplant Unit and 6IP Cardiovascular Surgery.
They join 4IP General Medicine, 6IP Acute/Decant Medicine, 9IP Sub-Acute Medicine, and 10IP Palliative Care/Sub-Acute Medicine as units the outbreak has affected in the 17 days it has been active.
At least 55 cases and two deaths have been linked to the expansive Nov. 10 outbreak, the health unit says, making it the largest outbreak to be seen in London and Middlesex during the pandemic, according to the region’s medical officer of health, Dr. Chris Mackie.
A number of those infected have been staff at the hospital, he says, with transmission being driven by people letting their guard down, such as during work breaks.
LHSC reported Friday that at least 28 staff members in its organization were currently infected with the virus, while at least 26 inpatients with COVID-19 were in its care.
“The major breakdown was personal protective equipment between staff,” Mackie said of the ongoing outbreak.
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“I really empathize with the people working in the hospital, I know everybody’s doing their best and we’re all going through COVID-fatigue… but what we saw is that people weren’t wearing masks when they’re on break, and that meant that the virus spread quickly amongst staff,” he continued.
“We’re seeing this in a whole range of settings. It seems to be part of human psychology, where we get into these relationships with people where we’re either family or working together, and it’s this bond of trust, and people don’t think the virus can spread anymore just because we feel safe. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Last week, Dr. Woods admonished LHSC staff over such concerns in an internal memo leaked to the media in which he urged employees to hold themselves to “a higher standard.”
In the memo, Woods stated that the organization had seen ongoing issues when it came to staff taking off masks to eat together in break areas, and failing to socially distance, both outdoors and indoors.
“In many of these cases, internal contact tracing has shown the spread to be caused by direct staff-to-staff transmission,” Woods wrote in the memo, obtained by Global News. “To be clear: this is unacceptable, considering the infection control safety protocols and procedures LHSC has put in place over the past eight months.”
In an open letter this week, six unions representing LHSC workers said Woods’ comments made their membership feel “shamed, blamed, and humiliated, while they are working in the most unfavourable and challenging conditions they have faced in their careers,” according to a report in the London Free Press.
In addition, the unions said they had been calling on LHSC to create additional break room areas for staff members since early on in the pandemic, the report said.
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On Friday, LHSC brass announced they would be implementing new measures to get the UH outbreak under control, and to keep additional outbreaks from arising in its facilities.
Some of the changes announced include limiting the movement of staff and physicians between units and hospitals, and opening additional break room areas to ensure social distancing.
“We want to reassure the public that our precautions, practices, and protocols to address COVID-19 within the hospital continue to be followed carefully,” said Woods.
Woods added that LHSC leadership acknowledges the impact the measures are having on patients, staff, and physicians, but says they are being done with the goal of curbing transmission within the hospital and protecting community health and safety.
In addition, with admissions at UH reduced due to the outbreak, LHSC says 24 beds will be opened at Victoria Hospital to provide additional capacity.
Mackie says he’s hopeful that the tighter measures will help get the outbreak contained, and adds that health officials will be working with LHSC to make sure rules are being followed.
“Declaring an outbreak over — we’d need to see no cases for two weeks. Because there have been so many staff affected… that means that there likely will be cases that continue to be diagnosed at least for the next few days based on interactions that happened days ago or potentially a week ago or more,” Mackie said.
He added that the health unit has been in talks multiple times a day with LHSC leadership, as well as with those on the ground, to make sure the public health supports that are needed are in place.
“I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to end this pretty soon,” he said.
The outbreak at University Hospital is among at least 34 outbreaks that are active at hospitals across the province as of Thursday, according to Public Health Ontario.
–With files from Jacquelyn LeBel and Sawyer Bogdan