Area ER warning: Already over capacity, under pressure, St. Thomas hospital expects things to get worse

With COVID-19 case counts rising and flu season looming, the shortage of beds and long wait times at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital could worsen this winter, officials warned Thursday.

The hospital issued a statement asking the public to maintain health and safety measures and avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency room as it grapples with the fallout of a staffing crunch, high occupancy rates and an increasing number of patients with COVID-19.

“Currently, we’re over capacity,” said Karen Davies, the hospital’s president and chief executive.

“This has been a long-standing issue with the pandemic for sure. But we’re certainly working in a system that is under pressure at historical levels in my lifetime,” she said.

With the return to in-person classes at schools, no masking and more indoor activities, the hospital is seeing a rise in the transmission of not only COVID-19 but other respiratory-based viruses, a trend that’s playing out across province and country.

“With the flu season just around the corner, I don’t anticipate that these challenges (facing the hospital) are going to subside anytime soon. In fact, usually the winter months are worse,” Davies said.

In Elgin and Oxford counties, active COVID-19 cases jumped to 278 from 229 within the last week, said Ninh Tran, medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health.

“We’ve had an increasing number of outbreaks (and) our hospitalization numbers are going up,” he said.

At St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital, 27 patients have COVID-19.

The hospital is operating over capacity in all areas. As of Thursday morning, all 88 of the medical and surgical hospital beds were full. Usually, 65 of the beds are occupied, Davies said.

“We did add 22 beds throughout the pandemic to help us cope with the volumes presenting to the hospital, but all of our areas are full,” she said.

The four neonatal intensive care beds are occupied, as are the six beds in the pediatric unit, which typically operates at 50 per cent occupancy. The hospital’s 14 intensive care beds also are full.

For a hospital that is more than 70 years old, adding more beds to the system isn’t an option, Davies said. “It’s anxiety-provoking for us when we’re at the capacity level that we are, because we don’t have any more physical space.”

The high occupancy rates mean patients stay in the ER longer, leading to longer emergency room waits for others. Meanwhile, Davies said the hospital is experiencing higher than normal patient volumes compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re having more volume than we would have anticipated ever. It’s happening at a time when we also have a significant shortage of people working in the system,” she said.

The hospital is averaging between 160 and 200 patients a day in the emergency room, beyond its funded capacity of 130 daily patient visits.

More patients are entering the hospital sicker than usual, and often with “multiple issues” that require admission, Davies said. She added that could likely be the result of people delaying medical care or not accessing care during the pandemic.

Officials with Southwestern Public Health and St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital are urging the public to get a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot.

“We’ve got a couple of confirmed flu cases already in our region. We heard of cases in other Ontario jurisdictions, but it has arrived officially in Southwestern Public Health,” Tran said.

The health unit, which will begin administering flu shots on Nov. 1, said the two cases are among young children in Oxford County.

The hospital also encourages residents to seek alternate options for non-urgent care rather than visiting the ER. That may include contacting a family doctor, visiting a walk-in clinic or urgent care centre, or contacting Health Connect Ontario (at 811), a 24-hour service that connects patients with a registered nurse.

Last week, for the second time this month, London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) was forced to ask Londoners to avoid unnecessary trips to the ER because of long wait times. The wait to see a doctor in its emergency department had reached 20 hours or more for those without real emergencies, hospital officials said on Oct. 18.

cleon@postmedia.com

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press