Waterloo region hospitals use 'non-traditional spaces' to cope with high number of COVID-19 patients

Non-traditional spaces like day surgery recovery areas and hallways are being used to care for hospital patients with COVID-19 in Waterloo region.

Vaccinated patients have shorter stays, Lee Fairclough of St. Mary's General says

This file photo shows health-care staff prepare to move a 47-year-old woman who had COVID-19 and was intubated on a ventilator in the intensive care unit at the Humber River Hospital in Toronto in April 2021. Waterloo region's three hospitals have seen an increase in patients being admitted with COVID-19 in recent weeks and one CEO says they're using non-traditional spaces to keep up with the demand for care. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Waterloo region's hospitals are having to use spaces like hallways to treat the surge of people being admitted for care with COVID-19.

These "non-traditional spaces" also include using the day surgery recovery areas for in-patient spaces temporarily, and St. Mary's General Hospital president Lee Fairclough said staff are "really working to get every bed open that we can."

The number of patients in Waterloo region's three hospitals is high, spurred on by the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. On Tuesday, 136 people with the virus were in hospital. As well, 17 people were in the intensive care unit (ICU).

As for what that looks like in a hospital, one-third of patients in St. Mary's General on Monday were COVID-19 patients, Fairclough said in an interview Tuesday on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition with Craig Norris.

"That's quite a large number when you think about all of the patients that we serve on any given day," she said. "Most days we've got many patients waiting in our emergency departments for admission."

While the message has been that the Omicron variant is mild, Fairclough says that's not the case for everyone.

Lee Fairclough resigns as president of St. Mary's General Hospital in Kitchener. She will run for the Ontario Liberals in the June election. (St. Mary's General Hospital)

"We are still seeing a lot of very sick patients with Omicron, particularly among the unvaccinated," she said, noting people in the ICU "are predominantly people that are unvaccinated."

She said for many people who are in hospital but don't need to be in the ICU, their stays are shorter and they're not as sick. Often it's because they have at least two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, she said.

"It does allow us to care for more patients outside of that ICU environment. Thank goodness because we certainly wouldn't have the ICU beds," Fairclough said.

Doesn't matter when patients learn COVID diagnosis: CEO

During a media briefing on Friday, regional officials were asked whether patients being admitted to hospital knew they had COVID-19 when being admitted or if they learned they had the virus after being admitted.

Ron Gagnon, CEO of Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, said it really didn't matter.

"Even if somebody is admitted because they have heart problems and they have COVID, their care is now more complicated. They deteriorate more and they will stay with us longer," he said.

"I know there's been lots of debate and discussion about with COVID or for COVID, but at the end of the day, they need care and … our ability to deliver care is becoming more and more strained every day."

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region's medical officer of health, also said people with certain health conditions may find COVID-19 makes their condition worse.

"I think it's a little bit unfortunate that sometimes it's assumed that incidental COVID doesn't mean much," she said.

"If they're in the hospital, they require serious care and the hospital needs to take additional precautions because they're COVID-positive as well."

Still seek emergency care

The one bright spot right now, Fairclough said, is that while high numbers of hospital staff have been off sick with COVID-19 or needing to isolate, because they were fully vaccinated, they're starting to return to work. As more staff return, it means they're able to care for more patients so long as they can find space for them.

Some people may have hesitated to seek out emergency care after hearing about the strain on the health-care system, but Fairclough urged people who need emergency care to go to their nearest hospital.

"We will find a way to care for you," she said.

"We are all working together as a group of hospitals in our region. Come to the hospital. Come to the one that's nearest to you. If it's an emergency, it may be that we need to ask patients and their families to consider transfers to other hospitals," she said. "We'll try not to do that, but that is a way that we're coping and kind of working together at the moment."

LISTEN | Lee Fairclough on how Waterloo region's hospitals are handling surge in people with COVID-19 being admitted for care.


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