Collingwood's local hospital is feeling the weight of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as many of Ontario's hospitals struggle to bear the high load of patients.
The Collingwood General and Marine Hospital, as of today (April 29), has six COVID-posiitve patients, and three of them are in intensive care beds.
"We are now at a point in this pandemic where we are seeing a higher volume of COVID burden at our community hospital," said Norah Holder, president and CEO of the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital (CGMH). "Our intensive care unit is running at expanded capacity for an extended period of time, and more acutely ill patients are flowing through our emergency department."
The CGMH expanded from five to six ICU beds, and five of them are currently occupied with patients (three have COVID-related illnesses).
The hospital's overall capacity is at 91 per cent, and that's after cancelling non-emergency surgeries and procedures.
An 18-bed alternative health facility (field hospital) has been up and running at the Collingwood Legion since Decemeber. Currently, the field hospital is at 33 per cent capacity with patients requiring care while they wait for transfers to other types of care programs.
"From a province-wide hospital system perspective, this is the worst it has been in terms of exponential capacity challenges for many hospitals; particularly those in the GTA as a result of the great number of patients continuing to present with COVID-19 and requiring hospitalization," said Holder.
At Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) the level three ICU beds are in demand for patients with some of the most severe COVID-19 related illness.
“This has been a punishing third wave, pushing many hospitals close to the breaking point and facing a situation we’ve never seen before and frankly didn’t ever want to imagine,” RVH president and chief executive officer Janice Skot told reporters on April 28 during a virtual press conference.
“The crisis is real," she added. "The crisis is here at Simcoe-Muskoka.”
As of April 28, Skot said RVH was caring for 32 COVID patients, with 12 in critical care and nine using a ventilator.
While those numbers have eased somewhat since the weekend when the hospital was caring for 61 COVID patients and 18 in critical care, it’s still too high, she says.
“To put that in perspective, six weeks ago we had a total of three COVID patients and one in the ICU (intensive care unit). That’s how fast the situation has worsened,” said Skot, noting patients are younger and getting sicker faster.
The hospital’s 16-bed ICU is full, prompting RVH to enact its critical care surge plan, which enables it to create 19 additional beds.
They’re currently operating three COVID units and a 70-bed field hospital in the parking lot. And like all Ontario hospitals, RVH has cancelled all non-emergency surgeries and procedures to free up even more beds and allow the redeployment of staff to areas of need.
RVH will also be utilizing the assistance of 16 home-care workers, who Skot noted have volunteered to work at the facility, and they will also be bringing up 45 health-care students, including nurses, physicians, paramedics, etc., in their final years of training to provide additional support under close supervision.
CGMH has increased its staffing contingent by 18 per cent, with the top investments in nursing and environmental staff.
“The situations are that dire," said Skot.
Hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are seeing double-digit COVID admissions every day, putting them over capacity and forcing them to transfer dozens of patients to distant communities daily, Skot added.
Holder reported the Collingwood hospital has received 14 patient transfers from the GTA. Collingwood is a level two ICU hospital, but RVH is a level three ICU, meaning they can take patients with more serious conditions (not just from COVID, but from life-threatening emergencies like car crashes and brain bleeds).
The Barrie hospital has accepted more than 60 GTA transfers over the past two weeks and 165 patients since November.
“RVH is doing its part by contributing to a co-ordinated system and ensuring hospital services keep functioning safely,” she said.
To ensure they have enough beds, Skot said the hospital has had to transfer 50 patients to other hospitals as far away as Sault St. Marie.
“These patients are frightened and are far away from their families," she added. "Some of them are dying alone.”
While Skot acknowledged Ontario has seen a slight decrease in new case counts, hospitals continue to brace for increasing ICU admissions, noting projections released by the province’s Science Advisory Table show the province could see up to 2,000 patients in the ICU in the weeks ahead.
“Those descriptors aren't hyperbole. The current reality is all those things and more," Skot added.
As of the April 29 daily update from Public Health Ontario, there were 884 patients in ICUs across Ontario with COVID-related critical illness. Of those, 620 were on ventilators.
There are 50 residents of Simcoe-Muskoka region currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 20 of them are in ICUs, as reported today by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.
Ontario hospitals, including RVH, are being tested, but Skot is confident they are both well trained and well prepared for what could come. That said, she continues to plead with the community to do their part.
“If ever there was a time for us to double down on adherence to safety measures, this is it. Our staff and physicians are exhausted. They’re bone weary from the relentless, gruelling year (of) long, uncertain days, wearing hot PPE. They’re worried about their own safety and of course that of their families,” she said.
“I’ve heard it described as running a marathon where they keep moving the finish line. We just don’t know when it will end," Skot added. "These are tough days and, unfortunately, they may get tougher. I have no doubt Team RVH will continue to dig deep and get us through this.”
Holder also urged the community to follow public health measures and advice and commended the CGMH team.
"Our CGMH employees and physicians are tired, but they are giving it their all and deserve tremendous recognition and appreciation for their dedication and efforts," said Holder.
-With files from Erika Engel