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Report shares community impact of COVID-19 in the County

Noting COVID-19 has forced everybody to make sacrifices, with local businesses particularly hard hit, Mayor Steve Ferguson, in this file photo from March, admires signs that sprung up on plywood hiding renovations at County Canteen. Artist Nella Casson and friend Emily Sanders started the postings to the wall and inspired others to leave a message of hope. “Sometimes magic just comes out of nowhere to lift spirits a bit during this oppressive time,” said Ferguson. – Mark Kerr photo



County council received a snapshot of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in the community during the first six months of the pandemic.

Brian Beiles, president of The County Foundation, presented an interim report at Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, just hours after the first COVID-19 confirmed case in months was listed by Hastings Public Health for Prince Edward County.

“Research undertaken for this interim report indicates that organizations and volunteer groups have demonstrated flexibility, resilience, and commitment to maintain services through the first six months of COVID-19,” he said. “But the research also points to community challenges
to be addressed, some of which were exacerbated by the pandemic.”

The foundation was engaged by the municipality to prepare the report with data reflecting the wellbeing of the community. It was based on one-on-one interviews with community service providers, mostly executive directors of organizations, conducted online from mid-March to the end of September. Follow-up interviews are to be conducted in February with a final report for the full Vital Signs report in March.

In one of several quotes in the report, Susan Quaiff, Executive Director of the HUB Child and Family Centre summed up the past six months.

“The greatest challenge was the feeling of loss, not being in control, and trying to
support everyone as much as possible,” she said. “We have been resilient, but everyone has some scars and stress.”

It also highlighted that Prince Edward County has a gap in access to information about the most vulnerable people in the population.

Eric Serwotka, Director of Public Health Programs for Hastings Prince Edward noted “It takes the collective action of government, agencies, and individuals – If any
piece doesn’t work, it falls apart. It’s important to operate as a community.”

The largest divide over the pandemic was that it necessitated the adaptation to internet-based technology.

“This further revealed the digital divide created by unreliable Internet in rural areas, cost of equipment and lack of technical skills,” the report states. “The barriers impede communications, access to online education, access to employment programs and the ability to work remotely.”

The pandemic altered the way people communicate, work, learn, shop, and socialize.

“It has forced organizations and businesses to scale up their use of technology and to rethink their approach.”

Susan Treverton, Executive Director of Community Living Prince Edward noted the pandemic became an opportunity to learn and improve, and to be innovative.

“It has been difficult, but we will be a better organization at the end. Many organizations will never return to their old models of operating.”

The report notes the common threat gave a shared sense of togetherness which lead some people to look past their differences and collectively respond to the challenges.

The report notes the pandemic highlighted the need for a basic guaranteed income, drew attention to the value of natural spaces, and gave a renewed sense of value for essential and front-line workers.

“All levels of government were focused on the same page, and partnerships were formed or strengthened,” the report notes.

The changes have brought personal toll, as noted by Kathy Kennedy, Executive Director with the Prince Edward Learning Centre.

“Staff have all reported mental health issues. No one is immune, the timing varies,” she states. “Life as we know it has changed. People are grieving, and there is more to come.
The worst has not hit yet.”

In discussing mental health, the report highlights the combination of social isolation, high stress, job losses, grief, closures of regular services
and supports, access to cannabis and alcohol, and an overwhelmed health care system creating an environment for mental health and substance abuse problems.

Quinte Health Care emergency departments reached an all-time high of opioid overdoses in April and May. HPE was already experiencing an opioid crisis.

It notes parents had the pressure and economic impact of having children at home with few supports: no school, day care, summer camps, or respite and children and youth experiencing anxiety without social outlets and by the return to school.

It notes long-term care and group home residents (and families) are also experiencing emotional distress and mental health concerns in response to COVID-19.

Residents in general, especially seniors, were also fearful about the influx of tourists from COVID-19 hot spots, and crowding.

Organizations and agencies tried to reach out to members / clients / staff to keep
people feeling connected and lower stress by providing information and reassurance.

But there were gaps. The most concerning issue for Leah Morgan, at Alternatives for Women Prince Edward, was a drastic drop in calls.

“Women who are in abusive homes may be very isolated during this time. This is
the most concerning issue to come from COVID-19, a drastic drop in calls. During
COVID lockdown, women didn’t have the same opportunity to access services.”

The existing problem of housing, especially affordable housing, in Prince Edward County became more challenging.

“Before the pandemic, the wait list was high, and some have been waiting for years,” said Connor Dorey, Housing Manager, Prince Edward Lennox Addington Social Services Housing

The pandemic has put additional pressure on people who have lost income or employment. With the new normal of working remotely using virtual technology, people are relocating to Prince Edward County which is increasing housing prices and reducing availability.

It has also highlighted a crisis with volunteers.

“The crisis has shown us how important volunteers are, but there is an over reliance
on volunteers in PEC. Many are seniors, and there are fewer permanent residents. The pool is getting smaller,” states Sandra Latchford, Volunteer with Glenwood Cemetery.

Sarah Doiron, manager of the Picton Business Area, agreed.

“This experience made it very clear that there is volunteer burnout. There are many groups with limited funding and no staff. They are struggling to keep going.”

The report also looked at how organizations plan to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 – expected to be worse than the first, though Prince Edward County cases remained low – with just nine reported since March.

They included adaptation to teleworking, modifying for virtual delivery of programs, reviewing staff needs for childcare and how to continue should schools close, or if shutdowns are required.

While there is better knowledge and preparedness for infection control, health agencies are preparing for increased flue vaccines to reduce the strain on the healthcare system.

The Prince Edward Family Health Team wants to set up group programming classes to help people deal with high levels of anxiety in their patient population.

The municipality is also developing a tourism management plan for 2021 and along with the province and PEC OPP, is working on better traffic control for the Sandbanks. The OPP detachment is also seeking eight additional officers for next summer.

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