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From 'bed' to worse: York Region ranks last as Ontario warned about ICU bed shortage

COVID-19 surge means some non-urgent surgeries delayed in Newmarket, Richmond Hill, Vaughan hospitals
Jan. 8, 2021
Kim Zarzour

York Region may not be the riskiest place to catch COVID-19 in Ontario, but if you need an ICU bed, York may not the place to be.

While other regions have higher per cent positivity and reproduction numbers, data gathered by experts at University of Toronto show York Region is consistently at the bottom of the list when it comes to ICU bed capacity.

That’s disturbing news for a public faced with images of overwhelmed hospitals in England and California and warnings from local hospital CEOs that they are at a "tipping point".

Health experts warn that as the COVID case count builds throughout the month of January, hospitals will begin to ration care. With too few beds or staff, they could be forced to cancel surgery and delay treatment.

As of Jan. 7, the online dashboard, lead by a U of T think tank, shows York beds at 103 per cent capacity -- or 60 patients for the region’s 58 ICU beds.

Other regions are facing challenges, too -- including Huron Perth, Haldimond Norfolk, Halton, Eastern Ontario and Windsor-Essex, which are at or nearing capacity at the moment -- but York Region is the only area to consistently exceed what is available.

While numbers change daily, Markham Stouffville Hospital is currently hardest hit in the region at 120 per cent capacity, with 24 patients needing intensive care and only 20 budgeted ICU beds.

Of those patients, 15 are COVID-positive, said Julia Scott, the hospital’s vice-president of clinical programs and chief nursing executive.

To deal with the current shortage of beds, the hospital created an ICU surge space and, should an ICU patient in the emergency department require care that the hospital can’t provide, there are processes to help triage, Scott said.

Mackenzie Health has been caring for an increasing number of COVID-19 patients, too, many of whom are in need of specialized care, said hospital spokesperson Christina Cindric.

Critical care space at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital is currently at 102 per cent capacity, with 39 critical care patients. As of Jan. 7, 16 of those patients are confirmed with COVID-19.

At Southlake, 94 per cent of ICU spaces are full (30 of 33 beds). As of Jan. 7, eight ICU patients have COVID-19, while 58 are admitted as in-patients on other units, according to Southlake spokesperson Kathryn Perrier.

You can find the latest hospitalization data in our COVID-19 tracking article.

Not all patients being treated in York Region hospitals reside in the region and local residents who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 may end up treated in a hospital outside the area, said Patrick Casey, the region’s spokesperson.

To help manage the significant capacity challenges during the pandemic, GTA hospitals collaborate, moving patients, equipment, and supplies among hospitals.

According to an Ontario Health memo, this “Regional Hospital Incident Management System” is time-limited -- in place for as long as the pandemic presents "immediate pressure or risk" -- and is not intended to address hospital capacity at a general level.

The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) is calling the situation “extremely serious”.

In a briefing Jan. 7, OHA president Anthony Dale said combined ICU needs of COVID and non-COVID patients will exceed available capacity by late February and large scale transfers of patients will be necessary.

Shady Ashamalla, head of general surgery at Sunnybrook, reported on Twitter Jan. 5 that cancer surgeries across the province are being delayed and cancelled.

In York Region, some non-urgent surgeries have been put on hold.

With record-high numbers of COVID-19 patients, Southlake has postponed some procedures, but continues to perform the most urgent surgeries, such as those for cancer cases, Perrier said.

"We understand that it is difficult for those patients who are waiting for surgery," she said. "Right now, we are focused on making things as safe as possible."

Mackenzie Health has reduced non-urgent, in-patient surgical activity and is only able to conduct a portion of its scheduled surgeries and procedures at the moment.

"This is necessary to create additional space for patients and to ensure available staff to care for our patients," Cindric said. "We will make every effort to continue to perform these procedures and maintain our ability to treat patients who come to us for all types of care."

At Markham Stouffville, cancer surgeries remain a priority at this time, a hospital spokesperson said, adding the hospital is still functioning at capacity for those patients, ensuring they’re seen in a timely manner.

Even before the pandemic, some hospitals were in a state of emergency due to overcrowding. Southlake, in particular, has consistently raised the alarm.

Asked why York Region -- home of Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot’s riding -- is feeling the ICU pinch more than most, a ministry of health spokesperson sent this emailed reply:

"As part of the Fall Preparedness Plan announced in September 2020, Ontario invested over $4.7M to support a total of 19 additional critical care beds across three York Region hospitals. To support operationalization of this capacity investment, these hospitals also received a combined total of $577,600 for critical care staff training."

Decisions on ICU-bed funding allocations are based on annual recommendations by Critical Care Services Ontario, which uses an algorithm for calculating "hot spots" that need more space, along with local and provincial consultation, the email said.