COVID-positive patients in some Ontario hospitals may now be put in rooms with patients who don’t have COVID-19 — as long as those uninfected patients have recently recovered from the virus and are double-vaccinated, this newspaper has learned.
The move, which stemmed from recent Public Health Ontario guidance, is the latest unprecedented step some hospitals are taking to cope with severe staff shortages and high occupancy rates, even as cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant begin to slowly drop in Ontario.
A spokesperson for The Ottawa Hospital, confirmed that recently recovered COVID-19 patients would be cohorted with COVID-19 patients at the hospital, if needed, according to newly revised policy.
“This will allow us to ensure we have the capacity to provide care for patients in need,” said Rebecca Abelson.
Queensway Carleton Hospital will also begin putting COVID-19 patients in rooms with recently recovered patients, spokesperson Kelly Spence said. Patients must be recovered within a month and would only be cohorted with COVID-positive patients having the same variant of the virus, she said.
That is one of the steps hospitals have taken to manage pressure during the Omicron wave of the pandemic.
Hospitals are also bringing staff with COVID-19 back to work early under certain circumstances, according to guidance from a province-wide directive that has drawn the ire of unions representing health-care workers.
In a media conference Thursday, Michael Hurley, president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, and Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, called the provincial guidance misguided and dangerous.
“Forcing a health-care worker back to work while sick or infectious with COVID-19 imperils the health and safety of patients and of other health-care staff,” Hurley said.
He noted that hundreds of Ontario patients had died after acquiring COVID-19 in hospitals while being treated for other ailments. He also said fear of working with infected co-workers was an added level of stress for already burnt-out and exhausted health-care workers.
The unions are calling on the province to rescind early return to work for health workers with COVID-19, saying it creates an unacceptable level of risk for hospital patients, long-term care residents and hospital staff. It is also likely to worsen the critical staffing shortage, Hurley and Stewart said.
The virtual media conference was held on a day when the province announced 70 new COVID-19 deaths, making January the deadliest month of the pandemic in Ontario in at least 12 months. It is a month that has also seen record numbers of COVID-19 outbreaks in hospital and long-term care homes, along with deaths.
The pressure on hospitals is unlikely to ease any time soon.
As the province prepares to loosen restrictions on restaurants and other businesses beginning next Monday, some surgeries that were paused due to a surge in COVID-19 cases will begin resuming the same day.
Non-urgent surgeries were put on hold in early January to preserve hospital capacity, affecting an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 procedures a week.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that some surgeries and procedures would resume in stages starting next week. Alex Hilkene said the first stage would include pediatrics, diagnostic services, cancer screenings, some ambulatory clinics, private hospitals and independent health facilities.
Ontario also announced Thursday that it was delaying the deadline for long-term care workers and caregivers to get third doses of COVID-19 vaccinations until March 14, saying the measure was needed to preserve staffing levels.
And the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said during a COVID-19 update that the province “can’t eliminate this threat. We have to learn to live with it.”
Hurley and Stewart said the province must do more to ease staff shortages in health care that predated the pandemic, but have become significantly worse since it started.
Among other things, they called for stabilization pay to retain staff, a repeal of Bill 124, which freezes wage increases for all public sector employees in the province, and comprehensive mental health counselling for health workers, many of whom have developed PTSD during the pandemic.
The unions say the province needs a comprehensive and realistic health human resources strategy.
Allowing — or requiring — people to come back early after being sick with COVID-19 will further harm morale, driving more workers away, they said. The staffing crisis in long-term care, in particular, has probably never been worse, Hurley said.
The provincial guidance on early return to work allows workers with COVID-19 to return to work earlier than Day 7 as long as they work with COVID-positive patients and residents and their symptoms have been improving for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in a memo about cohorting newly recovered patients, The Ottawa Hospital’s acting manager of infection prevention and control said patients who had evidence of COVID-19 infections after Dec. 15, 2021, and were now recovered could be cohorted with positive patients, including in COVID care units, for 90 days after infection. They can also be cohorted with suspect or contact patients. The policy only applies to “immunocompetent” patients.
The province has not issued guidance on whether hospitals can cohort COVID patients with recently recovered patients.
With files from The Canadian Press