What Ottawa Public Health has learned from the pandemic

This article was written by Nicole Williams of CBC Ottawa. Read the article on their website here.

Reports recommend paid sick leave for all workers among other things.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is reflecting on some of the lessons it's learned from the COVID-19 pandemic so far and says there needs to be some changes going forward, including fair wages for long-term care staff and paid sick leave for all workers.

The recommendations are outlined in two reports that Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches will submit to Ottawa's Board of Health Monday.

"The pandemic has shone a light on gaps in how Ontario's public health, health care and social-support systems function," reads one of the two reports.

It said the pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain people, including lower income and racialized communities, as well as people living in crowded housing conditions and front-line staff working in long-term care homes.

Women, adults younger than 45, people with disabilities, visible minorities and people in the LGBTQ communities have also experienced the greatest impacts on mental health, based on an OPH survey.

There is also evidence that shows an increase in substance abuse, with increasing rates of overdose and overdose-related deaths in Ottawa.

The reports go on to outline that many essential workers across the province are "precariously employed" and have to choose between financial security or going to work sick to support their families — which contributed to the spread of disease.

Lessons from long-term care homes

Between March and December of last year, OPH said it's investigated 78 COVID-19 outbreaks in 26 of the city's 28 long-term care homes. It said 634 staff members and 906 residents tested positive in that time and 282 people died from a COVID-19-related outbreak in facilities.

New health measures meant more demand on staff, stretching employees to their limits. The reports point to "unprecedented staffing shortages" in homes over the course of the pandemic.

OPH is recommending standardized wages and benefits for health-care workers in long-term care homes to help recruit and retain staff on the front lines. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In one of its recommendations, OPH said it's critical the Ontario government find a way to "standardize and incentivize wages, benefits and employment conditions for health-care workers" in homes in order to recruit and retain front-line workers and maintain adequate staffing levels.

Health measures also meant that visitors at homes were limited and other therapeutic group activities were cancelled. Residents were also confined to their rooms if there was an outbreak at the home.

The reports say this led to a "rapid decline in the mental or physical health of residents and significant distress among family members unable to visit."

Other recommendations

OPH is making a number of recommendations to the provincial government, including the expansion of OHIP coverage to mental health and addiction practitioners.

It said the province should require cultural sensitivity training for all health-care providers and promote equitable representation in those providers.

It also recommends businesses offer paid sick leave, review their benefits packages and make mental health support programs more available for workers when possible.

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