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Ontario-Michigan border dividing line for pandemic that health-care workers cross daily

The border between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan is the divider of two very different situations when it comes to the battle against COVID-19, leaving Canadian officials scrambling to protect citizens from the spreading virus. 

On the one side, Michigan’s outbreak is pushing the health-care system to a breaking point, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeals to out-of-state and retired health-care workers to “volunteer to help the residents of our state fight.” The state has nearly 6,500 confirmed cases of the disease as of Tuesday, with about 1,800 in the City of Detroit. 

Meanwhile in Windsor, that number sits at 65 — with about one third of those confirmed cases being in health-care workers who travel across the border to work in Michigan. 

Though the border is closed to non-essential travel, it remains open to trade and to the nearly 1,500 to 2,000 health-care workers who cross over each day

That traffic of health-care workers is a huge concern for Canadian officials. 

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said she spoke with Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens Monday night about the issue. 

“[Dilkens] is very focused on it, as are the local MPs, and he has been in very close touch with all — he reported to me that he’s been in close touch with both the Canadian hospitals and the U.S. hospitals,” said Freeland, adding that the number of health-care workers who cross to Detroit is a “measure of how closely intertwined” the country’s economies are.

Watch Freeland address the issue of cross-border health-care workers:

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke with Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens Monday night about those who travel from Canada to the U.s. for work. 2:37

“Stepped up measures have been put in place at the hospitals both on the U.S. and Canadian side of the border to very carefully check the health of the health-care workers to be sure, when they go to work and when they leave work, that they are healthy and well,” said Freeland. 

Dilkens said he spoke with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan — former president and CEO of the Detroit Medical Center — on Tuesday, saying that both mayors were on the same page when it comes precautions their respective area hospitals are taking. 

“I think hospitals on the U.S. side and I know hospitals here in Windsor have stepped up their enhanced screening on certain staff — staff who are more likely to be susceptible whether they working part time in Detroit then coming to work part time in Windsor as an example,” said Dilkens.

“The fact that someone works at a hospital in Detroit does not mean that that’s the place where they picked up COVID-19.”

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said he spoke with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday. Both mayors were happy with the current precautions for health-care workers crossing the U.S.-Canada border for work. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

It’s hard to say whether the federal government will impose further restrictions, given that health-care workers are so badly in demand on both sides of the border. 

However, Windsor’s top doctor has been consistently asking for clarity and guidance on those restrictions. It’s been something he has alluded to each day during the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit’s morning updates. 

“We hope to work with federal and provincial governments to address cross-border travel and limit border crossing when possible,” said chief medical officer Dr. Wajid Ahmed.

I can’t say we’re not bringing it home, because we are being exposed.– Danielle Bastien, nurse practitioner, Henry Ford Healthcare

Ahmed would like to see the movements of health-care workers who work on both sides of the border reduced where it can be — suggesting that they stay somewhere in Michigan or Windsor while they are working. 

“We don’t want to take those critical health-care workers away from their jobs — nobody would want that,” said Ahmed. “I think all of us have a little bit of a role in solving this problem. Right now the border is allowing those essential services to cross which is understandable.”

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, said he’d like cross-border health-care workers to reduce the amount of movement they have, to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

Historically, there have been 54 individuals working at Windsor Regional Hospital who work in a Detroit hospital as well, and approximately 13 individuals that live in Michigan and only work at Windsor Regional Hospital. 

President and CEO of the hospital, David Musyj, said many of these employees are specialty trained.

“In order to support Detroit healthcare and healthcare in our larger region Windsor Regional Hospital is no longer going to have staff that are working in Detroit and at Windsor Regional Hospital continue to do so,” he said in a statement to CBC News. 

“The immediate negative impact to healthcare in Detroit to continue to advocate for ongoing border restrictions and the long term negative impact on our international relationship in healthcare and many other areas between the two countries would be devastating. It is short sighted by those advocating about this issue.”

“I don’t suspect you’ll ever get to the point where there’s a hard lockdown,” said Dilkens. “And in fact if there was a hard stop at the border and they they stopped all these central workers from crossing, you’d likely have to close probably the emergency department at Windsor Regional Hospital and you’d probably have entire floors and departments closing at hospitals in Detroit.”

Ahmed said more can be done by all stakeholders including government, employers, and community members to limit travel across the border. 

Health-care workers battling virus in Michigan

Nurse practitioner Danielle Bastien is one of 950 Canadian employees at Henry Ford Healthcare in Detroit. She said she’s taking every precaution she can to avoid spreading COVID-19, including immediately self-isolating when she returns home

“I can’t say we’re not bringing it home, because we are being exposed,” she said. “There’s no option for us not to come to work.” 

Should further border restrictions come into effect, Bastien said there are facilities in Detroit that are offering discounted rates for people who need a place to stay. 

“We do have housing available too,” she said. “We have also a ton of employees that are very generous about their spare rooms. There’s always people saying, ‘Hey, Canadian nurses, if you need somewhere to stay, stay here.'”

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