Only five patients in the region are currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, but the alarms being raised about dwindling health-care capacity in Ontario should be a wake-up call for everyone in the province, including residents in Huron and Perth counties, local hospital executives say.
“It is certainly worse than it’s ever been in the pandemic,” Andrew Williams, the chief executive of the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance, said Friday, just four days before government experts released their latest COVID-19 projections..
“I would categorize it as worrisome. We’re slowly seeing beds fill up. They’re filling up at a faster rate than they did in wave one and the projections we’ve seen are not good, to be very candid.”
There has yet to be any indication that elective procedures in the region will again be cancelled, a decision made to protect hospital capacity during the pandemic’s first wave that delayed those services by months.
But the possibility of it happening again is not out of the question.
“I will assure you it’s a regular point of discussion,” Andrews said. “We are daily involved in conversations with all the hospitals across the southwest. We’re part of a system and we recognize that there could well be a time when we’re seeing a lot more patients coming into our region from other parts of the province because of pressures elsewhere.”
Data released Tuesday suggests COVID-19 is quickly spreading in Ontario, growing at seven per cent on the “worst days.”
Under current COVID-19 restrictions, daily deaths from the virus will double from 50 to 100 by the end of February, experts said. There will be about 500 COVID-19 patients in intensive care by January and potentially more than 1,000 by February in more severe scenarios.
Meanwhile, COVID-related deaths continue to spike in long-term care, with 198 residents and two staff dying since Jan. 1.
“This is no longer a problem of a small group of cities or one region of the province,” Dr. Steini Brown, co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said Tuesday.
More than half of all intensive care units in Ontario are full, or have only one or two beds left, he said. As Ontario climbs closer to having 1,000 ICU beds – about half of the province’s capacity – filled with COVID-19 patients, “we will have to confront choices that no doctor ever wants to make and no family ever wants to hear,” Brown said.
“They will be choices about who will get the care they need, and who will not. They’ll be choices about who receives oxygen or is transported to hospital.”
And that doesn’t just apply to COVID-19 patients, he stressed. It will impact people with heart attacks, or injured in car crashes, or anyone else needing intensive care.
The provincial government responded Tuesday by issuing a new stay-at-home order aimed at limiting people’s mobility and reducing the number of daily contacts they have with those outside their immediate household. The order, which takes effect Thursday, requires everyone to stay at home except for essential purposes, such as grocery shopping, health care, exercise or essential work.
“The latest modelling data shows that Ontario is in a crisis and, with the current trends, our hospital ICUs will be overwhelmed in a few short weeks with unthinkable consequences,” Premier Doug Ford said.
Exact ICU capacity in Huron and Perth counties is currently difficult to pin down. The definition of a “local” ICU bed is broadening by the day, Williams said, especially as hospitals in the region more frequently transfer patients to where they can best be cared for.
Asked about ICU capacity in his hospitals, Karl Ellis, the chief executive of the Listowel Wingham Hospitals Alliance, said bluntly the question is moot at this point.
“The total number of ICU beds in Huron and Perth and how many are available on any given day isn’t really that relevant,” he said. “We could have six empty beds today and they could be filled up tomorrow with local or provincial patients.”
Other challenges include addressing patients in hospital waiting for a spot in long-term care or supportive housing. Those cases account for more than 18 beds in Stratford, Williams said.
“You start to add those numbers as well where you have 20, 25, 30 beds that could be used for people who need hospital care but are being occupied currently by people who are waiting for services elsewhere, it really highlights how important it is that we invest appropriately in all areas of healthcare because we’re all very much connected.”
That’s true now more than ever.
“We’re part of a system and we have to make sure that we are aligning our hospital services with those people who need them the most,” Williams said. “It’s not just about who needs it locally, it’s who needs it from a system point of view.”
-With files from Taylor Blewett, Postmedia News, and The Canadian Press