A dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases due to more harmful and transmissible variants of concern are creating challenges in Regina hospitals, according to the Saskatchewan Health Authority. Intensive care units in the city have far exceeded their initial 27-bed capacity, and staff are "stretched to the max," said Lori Garbinski, executive director of provincial programs for tertiary care. As of Friday, there are 81 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Regina, 30 of whom are in the ICU. In order to make more room for those sick with the virus, the SHA has brought in 18 additional beds, and other wards have been expanded into ICU units. Additionally, the health authority has started housing two COVID-19 patients per room in the ICU, as well as in cardiac care units. "This action is unprecedented," Garchinski said. Regina ICU doctor Jeffrey Betcher said they are doubling occupancy to keep patients as close as possible in order to expand manpower, which he said was tight. Surge capacity The SHA will continue to double beds as needed, as all 45 of its Regina ICU beds are taken by both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. They are also considering expanding into the medical-surgical units if necessary. People who do not require critical care are being moved to hospitals in the rural south and also in the north in order to free up space. Other patients are bypassing Regina hospitals. Utilizing the field hospitals is not an option for the SHA. Garchinski said they were not built for critical care patients, but rather for those who are on the tail end of their journey and require oxygen or additional IVs. "The infrastructure is very different for critical care patients than a ward patient, and the field hospitals wouldn't have that sort of infrastructure in place," Betcher said. Beds at the Regina field hospital for COVID-19 patients. The SHA says the field hospital is not equipped to deal with critical care patients. (Saskatchewan Health Authority) With variants of concerns continuing to fuel a new surge of cases, health officials expect a rise in hospitalizations due to members of the public breaking public health orders over Easter. "What's happening now is really the result of what happened two weeks ago. As we're coming into the second week after Easter, we're seeing the results of large gatherings that may have not been in compliance with the health orders," Betcher said. Garchinski said the SHA continues to make plans with other ICUs in the province in order to expand levels of bed capacity and manpower. The SHA provided details of its ICU capacity by holding a rare press conference on Friday. "We're doing our part and it's really up to the public to do their part," Betcher said, as he pleaded with the public to follow all public health orders and get vaccinated. "If we tax our healthcare workers and healthcare system to the point of breaking, when this is over ... there's going to be a lot of people that are very tired. And I'm not sure the public would be confident and feel they got fresh healthcare workers looking after them after this is over." Dr. Jeffrey Betcher, right, was the very first person in Saskatchewan to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He is encouraging others in the province to help preserve the healthcare system and its workers, by getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (CBC) Health Minister says hospitalizations stabilized The SHA's message was different than the one provided by Health Minister Paul Merriman hours earlier. During a scrum at the Saskatchewan legislature Friday, Merriman said he heard double bedding "might be happening," adding it was "very temporary." Health Minister Paul Merriman. (CBC) He said while it's concerning Regina hospitals are on bypass, "we have seen the numbers stabilize as far as hospitalizations." "We're hoping that trend continues," Merriman said, encouraging the public, especially those in Regina, to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He said vaccines will continue to help drive down hospitalizations and deaths. However, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili called for the government to do more in order to reduce surge capacity at Regina hospitals. "We hope it's temporary, but it's avoidable. We didn't need to be in this situation, and it's much worse than the minister is willing to confess," Meili said.