More COVID-19 patients from hospitals in Saskatoon and Regina could be transferred to rural facilities to ease pressure on the healthcare system, the Saskatchewan government said, without providing details about when and where that could happen.
The practice of transferring patients to rural areas was done in the Delta wave, and one COVID-19 patient was moved from Saskatoon late last week.
Hospital beds in the province's two main cities are full, while only about 70 per cent of beds in rural Saskatchewan are occupied, Health Minister Paul Merriman said at Monday's COVID update. About 85 per cent of beds are occupied provincewide.
"It doesn't make any sense for us to be in a position when we are over capacity in Saskatoon and Regina, yet there might be another hospital out in the system that isn't at capacity," he said.
Staffing levels in rural facilities are stretched, but "we need to be able to utilize those beds," Merriman said, adding patients or their families would be told before a transfer takes place.
Many rural hospitals have seen service disruptions because of staffing shortages. For example, the Redvers Health Centre, about 240 km southeast of Regina, has been closed for emergency services since September. And on Jan. 9, emergency services at Biggar and District Health Centre, about 350 km northwest of the capital, were reduced from 24 hours a day down to 11 hours.
At a media tech briefing on Wednesday, Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) interim chief operating officer Derek Miller said each hospital looks at factors such as occupancy rates and the number of patients waiting to be admitted when making transfer decisions.
"We are working through that right now specifically in Saskatoon and watching very closely in the other centres to make sure that we can really optimize the capacity across the system," he said.
More than 500 hospital patients expected
Miller was asked whether patient transfers are inevitable and for a time span of when they would happen given hospitalizations are rising, with modelling showing a best case scenario of more than 500 hospital patients by mid-February.
"We are working through this in Saskatoon just based on the pressures that they are currently experiencing and very closely monitoring all of the hospitals for the pressures that they're experiencing due to Omicron and will proceed with this type of strategy when we need to," Miller said.
CBC News asked the SHA which communities patients could be transferred to and which ones have capacity, but did not receive a response by deadline.
Saskatchewan reported 24 new COVID-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday, bringing the total number to 315. In Saskatoon, there are 128 patients. Thirty-three of the COVID-19 patients in the province are in intensive care.
Saskatoon COVID patient transferred
A COVID-19 patient from Saskatoon was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital in Gravelbourg, about 185 km southwest of Regina, on Friday, said Dr. Intheran Pillay, a physician in the town and the lead for the SHA's South West area six.
Pillay said there is capacity to care for transferred patients in the area, which has two community hospitals with about 22 acute care beds, a few alternate level of care facilities, but no ICU ward.
"There's always been a willingness on our part in rural Saskatchewan to help out. We see ourselves as being part of a health-care system where we need to put our hands on deck," he said.
Pillay said staffing shortages have grown from health-care workers self-isolating or taking care of children who have to isolate, but that "there are always solutions that we look at to help make the system work efficiently."