For the first time since the pandemic began, Ottawa hospitals have begun receiving critically ill COVID-19 transfer patients from the hard-hit Greater Toronto Area.
Over the weekend, three COVID-19 patients were brought in by air ambulance and admitted to intensive care units at Ottawa hospitals, said Dr. Virginia Roth, chief of staff at The Ottawa Hospital.
The Ottawa Hospital, Queensway Carleton Hospital and Montfort Hospital each received one COVID-19 patient from hospitals in Scarborough and Ajax whose intensive care units are overwhelmed, said Roth.
More transfer patients are likely, she said.
“The key is to ensure that patients have access to ICU beds,” she said. “We are prepared to help out where we are needed.”
The transfers come as The Ottawa Hospital is treating record numbers of COVID-19 patients. As of Monday, TOH had 58 COVID-19 patients of whom 20 are in ICU, including one transfer from Scarborough. The Ottawa Hospital has also been close to or above 100 per cent capacity in recent weeks.
Under health care restructuring, Scarborough and Ajax in the eastern GTA and Ottawa are now part of the same large health region, which covers the eastern part of the province. Intensive care units at a number of GTA hospitals are over capacity and they have been routinely transferring patients to other parts of the province in recent days as COVID-19 cases climb.
Critically ill patients have been transferred from Lakeridge in Ajax Pickering to Kingston and from other GTA hospitals to other parts of the province, but this weekend marked the first time Ottawa hospitals have received transfer patients from outside the area.
In order to cope with pressures of the surging third wave of the pandemic, critical care beds are being managed province-wide to ensure ongoing access. Province-wide, there were 619 COVID-19 patients in critical care beds as of Monday, a rate described as at the “saturation point” by hospital officials.
“We are working as a system provincially,” Roth said. “We are looking at this as provincial capacity.”
That means patients from Ottawa could theoretically be transferred to other hospitals in the region, or further away if necessary. Some non-COVID-19 patients in need of acute care hospital beds have already been moved out of Ottawa to regional hospitals, said Roth. No COVID-19 patients have been transferred.
“We have not transferred intensive care patients, but we have transferred less acute patients,” Roth said.
“Things are different in the health care system. The hospital where you normally might access care might not be where you end up getting care, whether it is surgery or an ICU bed.”
The province passed regulations late Friday allowing the transfer of patients between hospitals without consent in emergencies.
There is still capacity in The Ottawa Hospital’s intensive care units, Roth said, and the hospital has surge plans to open intensive care space in other parts of the hospital if needed that have not yet been used. At the beginning of the pandemic each campus of TOH had 28 ICU beds and plans were in place to triple that number if necessary.
Roth said the only limitation will be having enough staff. “We have lots of ventilators and spaces, it is really about how we make sure we have the staffing.”
As part of the ongoing effort to cope with hospital overcapacity and rising COVID-19 cases, she said the hospital is preparing to reallocate some health workers. For example, she said, health workers might care for different types of patients than they normally do.
In addition, the province ordered non-urgent surgeries wound down to open more hospital beds. Roth said The Ottawa Hospital is doing so gradually, reducing surgeries by about 20 per cent this week.
Roth, like other physicians in Ontario, described seeing younger and sicker patients in hospital than during earlier waves and also signs of easier transmission among families, as a result of more virulent variants.
“It feels a little bit like a different virus.”