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April 10, 2020 0 Comments

Influx of cottagers has potential to overwhelm rural hospitals

City dwellers are flooding rural areas of Canada to “ride out the pandemic,” risking a spread of the coronavirus in places with limited medical services, warns an executive member of a group that represents rural doctors across the country.

“It’s pretty common across the country and well into the North right now,” said Dr. Elaine Blau, of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, which has 1,500 members.

“The movement of human beings out of cities and into fragile health systems is a real concern.

“Albertans are sort of swarming from their urban areas into rural B.C. Manitobans are swarming into Kenora, Ontario. This is a nation-wide issue,” added Blau, a physician at Lion’s Head Hospital on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

Blau said rural physicians are reporting seeing people heading to cottages to hunker down or simply for weekend visits. She understands the desire of cottagers to flee the city, but warns “this is exactly what this virus needs in order to propagate.”

These city migrants might believe they’re safer in a rural setting, but that’s not necessarily true, Blau warned.

Mortality rates are higher in rural Canada, partly because of the long distance to trauma centres. From the top of the Bruce Peninsula the nearest trauma centre is a drive of several hours, she added.

The peninsula already struggles to care for a normally healthy summer time cottage population. Add a pandemic to the mix and “it’s a recipe for unnecessary numbers of people to suddenly overwhelm the health care system.

“Our concern is not just about cottagers bringing infection here, but how do we manage when the surge is here and we have two to three times our normal population?” added Blau, who is also lead physician for the Peninsula Family Health Team.

Blau noted the Lion’s Head Hospital has only four beds, with three physicians providing emergency care, palliative care, care in the clinic and care for the nursing home. A fourth physician is on maternity leave.

“You can imagine, if one or two of us got sick, suddenly you’ve lost your capacity to serve all of those settings,” Blau said, adding that Lion’s Head Hospital is one of six hospitals that forms the Grey Bruce Health Services.

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Grey Bruce public health has so far reported 32 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A physician who has practiced for 45 years on the peninsula did a survey of cottages in the Lion’s Head area and found that about a third are full, Blau said. There are also rumours that some cottage owners are renting out their cottages. A local grocer told Blau he’s serving twice the number of customers he normally would in April.

“My friends and neighbours are cottagers,” Blau said. “I miss them. I look forward to them coming back. They’re part of the fabric of our community. It isn’t at all an ‘us and them’ scenario.

“A lot of us are actually concerned for them that they’re maybe inadvertently leaving a setting where they actually have better service and coming to a setting without knowing they may actually be in an underserved area, especially in the context of a pandemic.”

Sandro Contenta

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