The COVID pandemic has been such a drain on Hamilton public health’s resources that the city has been unable to offer a whole slate of regular services since March 2020.
During Monday’s board of health meeting, city councillors heard that the ongoing demand related to COVID-19 has meant public health employees have been redeployed elsewhere for 18 months, and it’s unclear when that will change.
Vaccinations for elementary school children for illnesses like hepatitis B, meningococcal disease and HPV have dropped significantly, despite a ‘catch up’ campaign last year.
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s chief medical officer of health, said those are “three very important immunizations for children to receive just before they become teenagers and young adults.”
Vaccination against hepatitis B has dropped from 71 per cent coverage in 2019 to 18 per cent this year.
Meanwhile, meningococcal vaccination has gone from 89 per cent two years ago to 24 per cent, and the rate of HPV vaccination has gone from 62 per cent in 2019 to just 7 per cent now.
Since the pandemic began, there have been no pest control inspections, no standing water inspections, and no food handler certifications.
According to Dr. Richardson, those inspectors are primarily conducting infection prevention and control inspections in settings like seniors’ homes and at farms that employ migrant workers.
Routine compliance inspections of personal service settings have also been put on hold, and are only complaint-driven at this point. There have been 43 inspections this year as a result, compared to just over 1,000 in 2019.
Tom Jackson, councillor for Ward 6, said he’s heard from residents complaining about an increase in rodents and issues with standing water, which can contribute to an increased risk of West Nile virus.
“These are localized matters, people concerned about potential diseases, infections, West Nile, rodents, and for me to tell them, “Look, public health is all tied up with the pandemic” – they get it, but they’re also saying, ‘but what about within our neighbourhoods, Councillor Jackson?”
He asked Dr. Richardson if increased funding could help mitigate the staff shortage, but the city’s top doctor said more money won’t help if there simply aren’t enough people to work in those positions.
“Everybody is trying … but the competition is fierce for the very few resources that remain out there.”
More than 100 positions included in public health’s 2021 budget have remained empty, according to Dr. Richardson.
She said there are multiple reasons for the staff shortage, including turnover and people moving from job to job.
“You’re also seeing the effects of burnout, whether it’s staff making a decision to retire earlier than they had originally planned or needing to take some time, those things are happening as well.
“So, unfortunately, until we get through this phase and are able to reduce the commitment to COVID, we’re going to have to continue to make tradeoffs in terms of what (we can) do and what we can’t.”
Other things that public health lists as “on hold” during the pandemic include:
- tobacco enforcement (non-complaint based)
- tobacco cessation clinics
- tobacco hotline
- drug strategy
- prenatal & parenting groups, face-to-face home visiting
- additional treatment capacity dental clinics
- food safety – non-urgent complaints
- comments on building/planning applications
- inspections of low-risk food premises
- health hazards – non-urgent complaints and reviews
- Lyme tick submissions