Sask. gov't mulls increasing future ICU bed limit as out-of-province patient transfers continue

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A patient from Saskatchewan is transferred from an air ambulance to a waiting Peel Region ambulance, at Pearson airport in Toronto, on Tuesday. The Ontario Critical Care COVID Command Centre is transporting COVID-19 patients to Ontario ICUs to alleviate strain on the Saskatchewan health-care system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
A patient from Saskatchewan is transferred from an air ambulance to a waiting Peel Region ambulance, at Pearson airport in Toronto, on Tuesday. The Ontario Critical Care COVID Command Centre is transporting COVID-19 patients to Ontario ICUs to alleviate strain on the Saskatchewan health-care system. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says his government is looking at whether to increase its intensive care capacity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said has stretched the province's health-care system to its limit.

The province's normal complement, pre-pandemic, was 79 ICU beds.

"Are we at the right number?" Moe asked. "How can we ensure we are providing the correct services?"

His remarks came on Wednesday, about a week after Saskatchewan began transferring some ICU patients to Ontario because there weren't enough beds for them in their home province.

The fourth wave has seen the combined number of Saskatchewan COVID-19 patients and non-COVID patients push well past the normal 79-bed ICU limit, resulting in what the Saskatchewan Health Authority has called unprecedented pressures on the health system.

One week ago, on Oct. 20, there were 117 ICU patients across the province, including 82 in intensive care with COVID-19.

That's 38 patients above the upper limit, but was possible because the province had redeployed workers from other areas to ICUs in order to staff more beds, a process known as "surging."

The number of non-COVID patients in ICUs was unclear on Wednesday, because the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre did not hold a media briefing, where it usually provides fresh statistics.

However, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care had dropped to 57 — the lowest number in weeks — according to the province's COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated daily.

That decrease was reported at the same time as five more COVID-19 deaths, however, and it also occurred about one week into sending some Saskatchewan ICU patients to Ontario for treatment.

COVID-19 in Saskatchewan by the numbers

'Surgical catchup'

Health Minister Paul Merriman said that 16 out-of-province transfers had taken place since the process was announced last week, with three more that were planned for Wednesday.

"These are short-term solutions," Merriman said of the transfers. "We need to be able to look at long-term solutions within our own province. This is a good opportunity."

An additional nine transfers are planned from Thursday to Sunday, according to the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency.

The transfers have been criticized by the province's Official Opposition.

Last week, NDP Leader Ryan Meili said having to move ICU patients to Ontario was an avoidable situation. He accused Moe of playing politics by not asking Ottawa for help earlier in the pandemic.

"This premier owes the people of Saskatchewan an apology," Meili said at a news conference on Oct. 18, after the province announced its first transfers. "The families and those patients who are on the planes on their way to Ontario, he owes them an apology."

Surge difficulties

Merriman said Wednesday the "surgical catchup" that will come after the pandemic wanes further underscores the need to think about Saskatchewan's ICU bed limit.

He said he did not think the government had reduced its number of ICU beds since 2007.

Moe said his government would also evaluate its ability to surge, which has met with challenges during the fourth wave, he said.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority announced one month ago it wanted to surge to up to 175 ICU beds, but "we weren't able to do that," Moe said.

Moe pointed to other efforts to beef up Saskatchewan's ICU staff, including his government's request for workers to the federal government, the province's training of around 70 nurses who are expected to enter ICUs imminently, and contracting out other services to help move other staff.

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