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Ontario hospitals and staff strained as COVID-19 cases rise

The latest:

Ontario hospitals are feeling the brunt of soaring COVID-19 case counts as the virus rips through the province at record speed and infects high numbers of patients and health-care workers.

The situation has become so serious that some hospital networks are reporting that hundreds of their staff members have tested positive for the virus, are symptomatic or are in isolation after an exposure.

Kevin Smith, president and CEO of Toronto’s University Health Network, says those factors combined have resulted in at least 100 staff absences per day as the highly transmissible Omicron variant drives case counts to unprecedented highs across the province.

“There aren’t health-care workers growing on trees, so it’s a very, very limited supply, and they’re in hot demand everywhere,” Smith said in a telephone interview.

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The number of staff unable to work at UHN’s five facilities in recent weeks — including Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret hospitals — is higher than what the facilities experienced in previous waves of the virus.

The high number of unavailable staff comes as Smith has noticed fewer critically ill people entering hospital from the virus. This is despite the fact that Public Health Ontario reported 16,714 new infections on Sunday and a record 18,445 cases on Saturday, noting both figures are considered underestimates.

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The number of active cases in the province has now crossed the 100,000 mark.

While Smith said staff are managing the current volumes well, he worries about the situation changing.

“I’m obviously worried that as we get people engaged in larger and larger amounts of social interaction, including in schools and other environments, there is risk of additional and significant spread,” he said.

Staff work in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Guelph, Ont., in April 2021. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

“Our hope is that populations like those wouldn’t require hospitalization, but we have to be prepared for the fact that they will because in other countries, we’re seeing kids’ admissions going up.”

To prepare, Smith is urging Health Canada to immediately approve Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pills, for emergency use.

He is also looking at redeploying staff to areas most in need and pulling hospital doctors and nurses back from vaccine clinics, where they can be replaced with other regulated health-care workers.

Dr. Jacqueline Sproule prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru clinic in Kingston, Ont., on Sunday. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

West of Toronto, similar moves are being considered at Hamilton Health Sciences, which runs Hamilton General Hospital.

Earlier in the week, organization president and CEO Rob MacIsaac asked vacationing, part-time and casual staff to pick up extra hours in exchange for premium pay up until Wednesday.

He made the appeal as the new year began with at least 411 of his staff in isolation at home and numerous outbreaks across his hospital sites.

“Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has set us back several steps,” MacIsaac said in a news release. “Consequently, we are once again facing immense pressures around hospital occupancy and staffing.”

Hospitals were experiencing an increase in patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Many were admitted due to medical conditions not linked to the virus, he said.

More than 100 in-patients at his hospitals were positive for COVID-19 as of Dec. 31, and 13 were in intensive care units.

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Emergency department volumes were simultaneously exceeding pre-pandemic volumes and seeing an increase in the number of patients arriving to the hospitals by ambulance on a daily basis.

On top of asking health-care workers to pick up extra shifts and hours, MacIsaac said his organization would turn to “extraordinary measures,” such as ramping down “procedural and scheduled care” beginning on Tuesday to divert resources to areas of “greatest need.”

He also said he would soon share more information on plans to call back asymptomatic staff with a negative rapid antigen test, who are currently isolating at home, as well as efforts to deploy workers from ambulatory areas to support in-patient care.


What’s happening across Canada

With testing capacity strained, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will begin to report more precise data that separates the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also happen to test positive for COVID-19.

People wearing face masks are seen in Vancouver on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In British Columbia, Pacific Coastal Airlines — an operator that serves smaller communities throughout the province’s West Coast and Interior — has suspended operations for two days due to Omicron cases at its operational control centre at the South Terminal of the Vancouver International Airport.

In the Prairies, Manitoba is now permitting workers at child-care facilities, child and family services and others who have mild COVID-19 symptoms but have tested negative for the virus to return to work. And starting Monday, Alberta is reducing its COVID-19 isolation period from 10 days to five for people who have received at least two doses of vaccine and are symptom-free.

In Quebec, demonstrators in Montreal defied a curfew on Saturday evening to protest against measures imposed on residents in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The province reported 15,845 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and 13 new deaths.

A shopper wearing a face mask walks by a closed store in Montreal on Sunday, when Quebec reported 15,845 new COVID-19 cases. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In the Atlantic region, Newfoundland and Labrador has set a single-day record for COVID-19 infections for a sixth straight day with 466 cases announced on Sunday. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia logged 1,893 infections over the past two days, and Prince Edward Island announced 137 cases since its last update on Dec. 31. And starting Tuesday at 11:59 p.m., PCR tests will be available only for select populations deemed high risk in New Brunswick.

In the North, active cases in N.W.T. reached 160 while the same figure in Nunavut now stands at 196. Public health restrictions are in place for all of Nunavut until at least Jan. 17.


What’s happening around the world

As of Sunday, roughly 289.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.4 million.

In Asia, India reported more than 27,000 new cases on Sunday, data from the Health Ministry showed, amid growing concerns of a potential new surge stoked by the Omicron variant.

A person is administered a COVID-19 test in New Delhi on Sunday. (Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

In Europe, the British government has been making contingency plans in case hospitals, schools and other workplaces are hit by major staff shortages amid the country’s record-breaking spike in coronavirus infections.

In the Americas, passengers on the cruise ship MSC Preziosa had to wait more than six hours to disembark at Rio de Janeiro Sunday due to an inspection by Brazilian health authorities that confirmed 28 cases of COVID-19 on board — 26 among passengers and two in crew members.

In Africa, South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew on people’s movements, believing the country has passed the peak of its Omicron-driven fourth wave.

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