As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in Saskatchewan, a health authority memo reveals concerns about rising hospital bed occupancy and testing centres being at maximum capacity, among other "emerging issues."
Some Saskatoon patients were transferred elsewhere last week due to high demand for critical care beds.
"A bypass mechanism was implemented last week," said an emailed statement from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, adding that those transfers may be unrelated to COVID-19.
"This allowed the system to redirect adult critical care to other appropriate units provincially when those services were required for patients who may normally be referred into Saskatoon ICUs."
The number of new cases has spiked dramatically in Saskatchewan in the past two weeks, with records set for the number of new cases reported in a day. There were 293 active cases in the province as of Tuesday, with the majority coming from the central (80) and south (154) regions. Another 36 cases were active in Saskatoon.
The July 27 Saskatchewan Health Authority document is a regular update distributed to SHA staff, physicians and partner agencies, which the health authority said is received by about 40,000 people.
It was released to the public by the Saskatchewan NDP Tuesday.
Could trigger use of field hospitals: SHA
The health authority said it has plans and "triggers" to expand into designated COVID-19 spaces if required.
"These processes would adjust bed allocation, including potentially triggering the field hospitals and using unconventional care management spaces that were considered in the planning work done earlier this year," said the SHA.
Preparations for field hospitals in Saskatoon and Regina are nearly complete, the health authority said.
NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said the need to transfer patients at this stage in the pandemic should be cause for concern.
The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU in Saskatoon has varied from seven to three in the past week.
"That to me should be sending big, big alarm signals to this minister of health that his preparation has been inadequate," said Meili.
"As we're seeing the case numbers spike … that means we will see more people in ICU. If we're already over capacity, what does that mean for what this is going to look like in the next couple of weeks, or months down the road?"
Meili also slammed Health Minister Jim Reiter directly, saying the government has long "stretched the health system beyond capacity" and accusing Reiter of failing to prepare the health system for a COVID-19 resurgence.
"The accusation from the NDP today is wrong," Reiter said in a statement sent late Tuesday afternoon, saying his government has "increased funding [for health care] by 65 per cent since 2007" and added 36 beds to Royal University Hospital this year.
"While this pandemic has brought on many complex issues which all provinces are grappling with, our health system has worked hard to prepare for and adapt to these new challenges," said Reiter.
Testing delays 'being addressed': SHA
The health authority's memo also says that most testing centres in the province are at maximum capacity. This follows complaints about delays from Saskatchewan residents this month, with some reporting waits of five or more days before getting booked for testing.
The document says the resumption of services, which have reopened in phases since initial shut downs due to the pandemic, will be reviewed "to ensure we are managing all areas accordingly."
"Significant public feedback around testing and delays is being addressed," reads the document.
Premier Scott Moe said last Thursday that the province can run about 1,800 to 2,000 tests per day, and hadn't yet reached capacity.
Almost 1,800 tests were recorded on Friday and another 1,600 on Sunday, while that number dropped to just over 870 on Monday.
Reports of 'hallway medicine'
The NDP also raised concerns about reports of immunocompromised patients being treated in hallways due to bed shortages.
Angela McLean, a woman who last year spoke out about her experience being treated in a hallway at the Pasqua Hospital in Regina, said a friend of hers who is immunocompromised recently found themself in the same situation. Her friend did not want to be named.
"How is it possible that there's nowhere but a hallway to put someone who is immunocompromised and severely ill, in the middle of a global pandemic?" she said.
The SHA said the safety of its patients, staff and physicians is a priority.
"Protocols are in place to provide care for both COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients," it said Tuesday.
"If the number of COVID-19 positive patients requiring hospitalization increases, the SHA has plans to meet that demand."
Higher rate of transmission
Also included in the internal SHA memo was information about the effective reproductive rate (Rt) for Saskatchewan, which is now 2.2 — much higher than the tipping point of 1 that indicates when case numbers are beginning to grow.
A reproductive number of 2.2 means for every person infected, an average of 2.2 more are contracting the disease.
The Rt for the central and south regions of Saskatchewan, where case numbers have spiked, is 2.24. The Rt in the far north, where a previous outbreak has ended, is 0.98.