COVID cases are pushing hospital capacity in N.S. to the limit

·3 min read
Hospitals in Nova Scotia, as in the rest Canada, are being pushed to capacity as they deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Hospitals in Nova Scotia, as in the rest Canada, are being pushed to capacity as they deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Two-thirds of the people in hospital with COVID-19 were not admitted because of the disease and their cases are not considered severe, but it's increasing the strain on Nova Scotia's already taxed health-care system.

As of Friday, 48 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 and are in specialized units, seven of them in the ICU.

But there are an additional 32 people who tested positive upon being admitted for something else, such as a broken leg, and 64 people who were already hospitalized and tested positive following an outbreak.

That brings the overall count to 144.

Dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice-president of medicine for Nova Scotia Health, said even someone without severe COVID systems presents a challenge for staff because of the need for distancing and specialized personal protective equipment. There are also additional monitoring requirements.

'It's hour to hour'

Capacity on most floors and intensive care units is running close to 100 per cent, Boutilier said.

"It's hour to hour," she told reporters.

"We manage the beds constantly. We're continually looking at opportunities to keep the flow going in the hospitals."

The provincial health authority's daily reporting of hospitalization numbers reflects people admitted due to COVID, or if they need to be transferred into a specialized unit because their case worsens.

The IWK Health Centre uses a similar reporting method. A spokesperson for the Halifax-based children's hospital said fewer than five children have been hospitalized for COVID throughout the duration of the pandemic.

Learning from elsewhere

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease expert and clinician at Dalhousie University, said it's good that hospitalization numbers aren't increasing exponentially, but a slow and steady increase can also be problematic for the health-care system because it's already being pushed so far.

Barrett said looking to other provinces, such as Ontario, provides a cautionary tale of what can happen if things get out of control. Ontario and Nova Scotia share similar vaccination rates, viruses and population bases, she said.

"Watching their numbers both of COVID admissions and of people who have medical issues exacerbated by COVID going into hospital, does give me pause," she told CBC News.

"So keeping a really close eye on that for sure because, as we know, with a virus that moves very quickly we don't have a lot of time to make changes before it would be a little too late."

Boutilier said everyone who comes to hospital, regardless of the reason they present, is tested for COVID-19. As the number of cases in the community increases — Public Health estimated 6,615 known active cases Friday — so too does the number of "incidental" cases caught at hospital.

Staffing challenges made worse

The hospitalization numbers change rapidly and, in fact, changed several times on Friday as Boutilier prepared for a briefing with reporters.

Those figures aren't the only ones fluctuating. Boutilier said they're also seeing similar changes in the number of heath-care staff off work to isolate while awaiting a test result or because they've tested positive for COVID.

On Friday, the number was 739, up from 715 on Thursday.

"We have very close eyes on that every single day," she said.

Boutilier said the effect of COVID on staff numbers is unlike any of the province's previous waves and comes as the system was already facing major staff challenges before this most recent outbreak and arrival of the omicron variant.

"We had anywhere from 14 to 39 per cent vacancies in staffing, such as nursing, and on top of this, with COVID, it's significant pressure."

The result is day-to-day decisions about what services each site can deliver. As hospitalization numbers grow and staff resources are taxed, Boutilier said she anticipates further reductions in non-essential services.

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