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Southwestern Ontario hospitals overwhelmed as Omicron cases surge

A surge in COVID-19 cases and a shortage of health-care workers are overwhelming southwestern Ontario hospitals, creating a growing crisis in the region.

Non-urgent surgeries have been cancelled and nurses reassigned as cases rise

A paramedic returns to his vehicle after delivering a patient to the emergency department at London Health Sciences Centre. The southwestern Ontario hospital is grappling with an influx of COVID-19 patients afflicted with the Omicron variant. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

A surge in COVID-19 cases and a shortage of health-care workers are overwhelming southwestern Ontario hospitals, creating a growing crisis as the region's healthcare facilities deal with new Omicron cases. 

Daily COVID-19 case counts have more than tripled since August. At the same time, health-care workers aren't reporting to work for reasons ranging from pandemic burnout, to catching the illness themselves and, in some cases, refusing to get vaccinated against the virus.

At London Health Sciences Centre, southwestern Ontario's largest hospital, hundreds of infections among staff have forced the hospital to undergo a major internal reorganization, cancelling all non-urgent surgeries and reorganizing wards and reassigning nurses to so-called hot zones, where the deluge of new Omicron patients can be treated. 

"This is not the position we want to be in, we know we're in a backlog," Dr. Adam Dukelow, the hospital's chief medical officer and chief quality officer, told CBC Radio's London Morning on Wednesday. 

'We're stretched'

"We're doing everything we can to keep every bed and resource we have open," he said. "We're stretched." 

At the London Health Sciences Centre, southwestern Ontario's largest hospital, hundreds of infections among staff have forced the hospital to undergo a major internal reorganization, (Colin Butler/CBC News)

As of Wednesday morning, at least 63 adults had been admitted to hospital with COVID-19, at least 10 of whom were in critical care. Dukelow noted many children have been admitted, which isn't surprising given the rise of the illness in the community at large. However there were no children in pediatric critical care as of Wednesday. 

Among staff, 261 health-care workers are currently dealing with virus symptoms. Despite the labour crunch, Dukelow said, LHSC is operating at 93 per cent capacity and continues to take patients from other health-care facilities around the peninsula where demand for care exceeds the capacity. 

"We are still in a position at this time to take patients from other parts of the province and we are lucky in the southwest to have great ICU capacity in St Thomas, Woodstock and Owen Sound," he said, noting each of those hospitals have also been taking their share of people afflicted by the virus. 

In Woodstock, inpatient beds at the city's only hospital are 95 per cent full and there is no room left in critical care. 

Emily Beckenhauer, a spokesperson for Woodstock General Hospital, told CBC News on Wednesday that ICUs are full, with two of the 12 patients in ICU suffering from the coronavirus. 

In terms of staff infections, the hospital is dealing with about 40 out of 1,100 employees who are off sick with COVID-19 symptoms, which only adds to the difficulty of dealing with the worst public health crisis in living memory. 

The same is true north of London, where the Huron-Perth Healthcare Alliance has 75 of its 1,200 employees sidelined by the coronavirus, or a little over six per cent. 

As of Wednesday, the network of hospitals in St. Marys, Clinton, Seaforth and Stratford is close to operating at 100 per cent capacity, according to its president and CEO, Andrew Williams. 

"We have a lot of staff who are having to isolate at home, which is putting significant pressures on the operation of the organization," he said. 

Williams described the hospital's inpatient capacity as "pretty tight" with its seven-bed ICU operating with eight patients.

"We have very limited capacity and that's one of the concerns right now across the province." 

'Our hospital is overwhelmed'

While staffing shortages have long vexed southwestern Ontario hospitals, the coronavirus pandemic and the Omicron variant seem to be stretching their resources as never before.

"Our hospital is overwhelmed just as every hospital is," said Karen Davies, president and chief executive officer of St Thomas Elgin General Hospital. "We have 78 patients where we would normally have 65 and our ICU is full."

She said nurses and doctors, the backbone of a well-oiled health-care system, are depleted from months of working overtime in trying conditions.

"Staffing is a daily concern," she said. "Almost every unit is running short right now. We have a lot of staff picking up overtime, but they're exhausted. We've hired over 300 extra staff this year." 

Davies said the hospital in St Thomas has also expanded its ICU since the pandemic began, adding two extra beds.

"The reality is there is a higher need for care than we can currently accommodate," she said, noting that while the hospital is struggling, it won't turn anyone away when it comes to urgent non-COVID cases.

Still, the strain on resources is having an effect on wait times, Davies said. While her team has been working as diligently and as quickly as they can, often at the expense of spending time with loved ones, tempers have flared over the amount of time it takes to be seen by a nurse or a doctor. 

"Everyone in these halls of the hospital are exhausted," she said. "People need to expect to wait when they get here. I'm very disappointed in the way the public has been treating our staff lately."

Davies said people also need to do their part to avoid getting sick or spreading the illness by avoiding gathering in groups, washing their hands and staying home when they feel ill.

As far as the surge goes, she said doctors and nurses aren't sure when it will end. 

"The reality is I don't think we know," she said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Reporter

Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at colin.butler@cbc.ca.

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