Ontario asks hospitals to prepare surge capacity as COVID-19 case rates increase

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario is asking hospitals to be ready to use their surge capacity within 48 hours should soaring COVID-19 cases prompt the need for extra beds at short notice – a request that came as the facilities' leaders held an emergency meeting on rising infections.

The CEO of Ontario Health, which co-ordinates several agencies in the health-care system, asked hospitals in a memo to be prepared for an anticipated space crunch.

"Our ability to care for patients (COVID and non-COVID alike) is being challenged, so we are asking hospitals to work together, even more, to ensure we can continue to have the bed capacity to care for patients, safely and effectively," Matt Anderson wrote in the letter issued Tuesday.

"The actions we collectively take in the next days and weeks will set the stage for our ability to meet escalating and anticipated capacity demands."

Hospitals in the province's lockdown and red zones need to ensure they have at least 10 to 15 per cent surge capacity for adult COVID-19 patients, Anderson said.

Facilities in green, yellow and orange zones should plan how to incrementally create at least that same amount of surge capacity for patients with the virus, he said.

The request came as the Ontario Hospital Association's board of directors met Wednesday for an emergency discussion about rising COVID-19 infections.

The association said it's deeply concerned by the worsening pandemic and related pressure on hospitals.

It said it appears increasingly likely that in late December and into January, hospitals will face a wave of seriously ill COVID patients that will almost certainly disrupt other acute care services and operations.

"The threat to Ontario's hospitals risks being even worse if people gather in person over the holidays," the association said.

"This is a far more serious situation than wave one given the need to maintain access to elective surgery. It is essential that people stay home if they are able."

On Wednesday evening, the OHA said it had made new recommendations to the province but did not provide further details.

"While the OHA communicates with the government, at this precarious stage of the pandemic we continue to call on the people of Ontario to do their part," the group said in a statement.

Ontario reported 2,139 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 43 new deaths due to the virus.

That pushed the province over the grim milestone of 4,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, with 2,513 coming in long-term care homes as of Wednesday.

The province said 932 people are currently hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 256 in intensive care. It also said 157 people are on ventilators in hospital.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is closely monitoring the "evolving situation."

"The situation we are seeing in our hospitals is a reflection of COVID-19 spread in the community," Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement. "Now more than ever, it is critical that all Ontarians continue to follow public health advice to help stop the spread of the virus."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the situation in the province's hospitals "terrifying" and urged the government to take further action to limit spread of the virus.

"It looks like Mr. Ford is simply walking away and saying the next thing we are going to see is the vaccine and so let's put up the white flag in terms of the fight," she said.

The NDP appealed to Ford Wednesday to issue a post-holiday COVID-19 strategy that includes in-workplace and in-school testing, and introduces paid sick and family-care days so people can afford to stay home if they contract the virus.

"There needs to be a post-holiday plan," she said. "Sitting on your hands and waiting for the vaccine is not going to work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press