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Halifax children's hospital sees demand rise for mental health services in pandemic

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's largest children's and women's hospital has seen an increase in demand for mental health services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a legislature committee heard Tuesday. Dr.
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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's largest children's and women's hospital has seen an increase in demand for mental health services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a legislature committee heard Tuesday.

Dr. Alexa Bagnell, chief of mental health and addictions at the IWK Health Centre, told the all-party health committee there has been a steady 15-to-20 per cent increase in emergency visits and calls to the Halifax hospital's crisis line since October.

Bagnell told committee members the rise in cases since the fall is contrasted with the onset of the pandemic, in March and April 2020, when the city's emergency mental health services were infrequently used. 

"I think it was a shock to everyone — people didn't come in for help," she said about the beginning of the pandemic. "We didn't actually have a lot of use for our emergency services compared to usual or even our crises lines at first."

The change since October indicates the public has been building up stress as the pandemic moves through a third wave in the province.

"Most of the visits are requiring either crisis services or appointments but not necessarily coming into hospital, so we know there is more distress but not necessarily mental illness and that is an important differentiation," Bagnell told the committee. "Our actual admissions have not changed, but our emergency visits have definitely increased."

Bagnell said the hospital's in-patient unit reached capacity with the number of mental health admissions in January, adding that admissions have since stabilized. "We are now maintaining what I would say are our regular admission rates," she said. 

Hospital officials told the committee the hospital's use of virtual-care technology began to ramp up as the pandemic hit, and that it has proven valuable in providing more access to services for youth and families.

Dr. Annette Elliott Rose, vice-president of clinical care and a co-lead of the hospital's COVID-19 management team, said virtual-care appointments for reproductive mental health for new mothers have risen 156 per cent since the onset of the pandemic.

"Some of that may be due to need, but some of that actually may be due to (improving) access," said Elliott Rose.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia reported 17 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday. The province has 171 active reported cases and 17 people in hospital with the disease, including seven in intensive care.

COVID-19 testing went into effect Tuesday at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Under the testing regime, travellers are issued self-swab kits and instructions, and health staff are on hand for assistance. Tests aren't mandatory but officials have said the testing measure is a way to quickly identify and respond to cases. 

Also Tuesday, fully vaccinated Nova Scotia rotational workers with no COVID-19 symptoms for at least two weeks before arriving in the province will no longer need to self-isolate, although they must get tested three times within a two-week period. 

Health officials said people in the province who received their first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on or before April 21 will now be able to reschedule their second-dose appointment before June 30. 

The province's chief medical officer of health, however, is recommending people get a second dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines instead. Dr. Robert Strang has said his advice is based on recent research that indicates mixing one dose of AstraZeneca with an mRNA vaccine provides a better immune response than two doses of AstraZeneca. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2021. 

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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