Ontario adding ICU beds, hiring nursing students to deal with surge in COVID-19 cases

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario said Monday it would add hundreds of critical care beds this week, free up pediatric units for adult patients and hire nursing students to help deal with an influx of COVID-19 cases that is pushing the health-care system to the brink.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is exploring a number of different options to boost hospital capacity and staffing levels as variants of concern wreak havoc on the province.

"The hospitals have been instructed to ramp down all surgeries except the ones that are absolutely life and death matters," she told a news conference.

The cancellation of elective surgeries, which will allow hospitals to treat more COVID-19 patients, is "unfortunate, but sadly necessary right now," Elliott said in the legislature.

The province reported 4,401 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday - more than 1,280 in Toronto - and 15 new deaths due to the virus. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units jumped to 612 - setting another new high.

Patient transfers were also on the rise and all hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area had to shut down pediatric units to accommodate patients with COVID-19.

Elliott said the province is looking at new ways to bolster staffing, including allowing student nurses to take jobs in hospitals so that more experienced nurses can be moved to critical care wards.

The province said the various measures will eventually help create between 700 and 1,000 ICU beds to treat the rising number of patients.

"We are creating capacity and we are making sure that every Ontarian who needs an intensive care bed will get one," Elliott said.

The Ontario Hospital Association said all 14 hospitals in the GTA will send their pediatric patients to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, which has also opened eight of its intensive care beds to young adults with the virus. SickKids said it expected to have all of those beds occupied by the end of day Monday.

Association CEO Anthony Dale said hospitals across Ontario are experiencing a capacity crunch unlike anything they've ever seen during the pandemic.

"We are in a true crisis and this is the battle of a lifetime," Dale said in an interview Monday. "This virus has got Ontario under attack. We're under siege in terms of community spread."

Dale said one way to offer relief to hospitals is to speed up the transferring of patients who are currently waiting for a nursing home bed - a safe move now that nearly all of the long-term care residents have been vaccinated.

"This is a very important discussion and very sensitive one," he said. "All we're saying is if it can be done safely .... let's think about that as an option because the situation in hospital is quite serious."

Ornge, the province's air ambulance service, said that the number of patient transfers have increased since the start of April.

In total, 914 transfers related to COVID-19 have been completed between Jan. 1 and April 11 - with 246 patients transferred during the first 11 days of April.

The alarming spike in cases prompted the province to announce that public schools would not reopen next week after the spring break, with classes continuing online.

Meanwhile, Toronto's top doctor warned that at the current rate of transmission the city could see 2,500 new COVID-19 cases per day by the end of April.

Medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the city is ramping up vaccinations but that still won't be enough to offset the impact of the variants.

"We are firmly in the grips of this third wave," she said. "And it is wreaking havoc, certainly, in our city."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave an incorrect tally of vaccines administered in Toronto.