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LHSC announces added measures to curb growing University Hospital COVID-19 outbreak

University Hospital on the campus of Western University in London, Ont, on May 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Mark Spowart

London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) says it’s postponing non-urgent and non-emergent surgeries and procedures at University Hospital (UH) in response to a worsening COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

The move is one of several new measures unveiled by the organization on Friday that officials hope will curb the spread of the outbreak, which has impacted multiple floors of the hospital and sickened several dozen people, of which two have died.

“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.

Woods stresses that despite the outbreak and the more than two dozen active staff cases at the hospital, its facilities remain a safe place to seek and receive care.

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For more than two weeks, LHSC has been grappling with outbreaks at the hospital that have impacted a total of seven units and infected a total of 61 people, according to the health unit. Eleven of the 17 new cases reported in London-Middlesex 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 that new measures would be implemented to get the UH outbreak under control, and to keep additional outbreaks from arising in its facilities.

Among the changes announced was the postponement of non-urgent and non-emergent surgeries and procedures at UH, a move which prompted several local New Democrat MPPs to issue a call to the province for emergency funding to expand hospital capacity in the city.

“This is a health emergency that requires urgent, emergency investments from the Ford government to save lives in London,” read a joint statement from Teresa Armstrong, Terence Kernaghan, and Peggy Sattler early Friday evening.

“We need urgent, emergency expansion of hospital capacity in the city, and the funding and support to test everyone within LHSC so hospital officials can isolate positive cases quickly. We also need to take the pressure off our hospitals by sending staff immediately to our long-term care and home care systems to keep people healthy and out of the hospital,” the trio said.

Additional measures being implemented by LHSC:

  • COVID-19 testing for all patients admitted to LHSC, and enhanced surveillance testing for staff and physicians at UH who provide inpatient clinical care.
  • Masking all admitted adult inpatients at both University and Victoria hospitals.
  • Temporarily suspending essential visitors and caregivers at UH, with exceptions.
  • Limiting the movement of staff and physicians between units and hospitals.
  • Opening additional break room areas to ensure social distancing.
  • Opening 24 beds at Victoria Hospital to provide additional capacity, as admissions at UH have been reduced due to the outbreak.
  • Temporarily suspending student placements in 4IP General Medicine.

Woods said 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.

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“We want to reassure the public that our precautions, practices, and protocols to address COVID-19 within the hospital continue to be followed carefully,” he said.

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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.

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“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