Nearing COVID-19 capacity, some Quebec hospitals forced to send patients elsewhere

Hospitals in the Quebec City and Chaudière-Appalaches regions are nearing their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, especially in intensive care, forcing them to send people more than three hours away for care.

Patients from Quebec City and Lévis being sent nearly 3 hours away to Rimouski and Sherbrooke

With ICU beds filling up in Quebec City and Lévis, COVID-19 patients are being transferred to other regions of the province. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Hospitals in the Quebec City and Chaudière-Appalaches regions are nearing their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, especially in intensive care, forcing them to send people elsewhere. 

The first patient — someone in their 70s — was transferred from Lévis to Rimouski overnight Wednesday, because 13 of the 16 ICU beds at Lévis's Hôtel-Dieu hospital were already occupied.

Dr. Jean Lapointe, with the Chaudière-Appalaches regional health authority, said there's not enough staff to open up new spaces. 

"We had better capacity at the start of the first and second waves, but slowly with each wave we lose human resources," Lapointe said. 

The Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Lévis is the main COVID-19 treatment centre for the Chaudière-Appalaches region, and nearly all of its ICU beds are full. (Raymond Routhier/Radio-Canada)

With the hospital network near the breaking point and a third wave hitting hard, patients are being transferred mainly to Rimouski and Sherbrooke, both of which are about a three-hour drive away.

Dr. Monique St-Pierre, the director of professional services for all the network's hospitals, said staff are transferring the more stable patients who are closer to recovery, but the transfer itself can still be a complicated process. 

She added the staffing situation has been "difficult," and that she's still anticipating a rise in hospitalizations. 

"We are planning for everything, and our corridors are still open with Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières," she said. 

Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of the region's outbreaks are in workplaces, so the province is trying to boost vaccinations with mobile clinics. 

Across the bridge in Quebec City, there are 144 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, including 38 in intensive care — the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic — and the regional health authority says there's no margin to take on patients from Lévis.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said hospitals are now paying the price for the high case numbers from a couple weeks ago.  

In early April, the Quebec City region was reporting more than 400 cases a day for several consecutive days. Now, it's fewer than 200.

But Dubé said it'll take some time for that drop in cases to translate into a drop in hospitalizations.

"The first good news that we have is to see the decrease in cases in Quebec, but before we see that impact on our hospitals and our intensive care, it'll take another few days," he said, adding the variant cases are pushing more people to seek medical care, and for many to be hospitalized for longer. 

Other regions say they have the space

In the neighbouring Lower Saint-Lawrence region, health officials say their network is equipped to take in transferred patients.

"We're going to use our resources to lend a hand," said Dr. Jean-Christophe Carvalho, the head of the CISSS du Bas-Saint-Laurent.

He said Rimouski has three COVID-19 patients in the ICU right now, and it can take five more.

Dr. Jean-Christophe Carvalho says the Lower Saint-Lawrence has room for patients from the Quebec City region. (CBC)

But he said the Lower Saint-Lawrence was already dealing with staffing shortages before the pandemic hit, and the squeeze has been exacerbated by increased hospitalizations. 

Still, Carvalho said, he doesn't anticipate patient transfers from other regions to have a huge impact on existing elective surgery delays. 

"Eventually, if ever the situation deteriorates, we will see what we can do or not do, but at present we do not expect to go beyond our capacity to support our region and our neighbours," he said.

As COVID hotspots go, Chaudières-Appalaches -- and the Beauce in particular -- is going through a difficult week with a mounting caseload, cancelled surgeries, and vaccine appointments going unfilled. Breakaway guest host Peter Tardif speaks with Dr. Monique St-Pierre, Director of professional services for theCISSS de Chaudière-Appalaches. 7:26

In the Eastern Townships, where the regional health authority is also poised to take in patients from Quebec City and Chaudière-Appalaches, intensive care physician Dr. Yannick Poulin said he's not concerned about the network's capacity at this point. 

He added he supports helping out neighbouring regions while the Townships area has the space.

In the Eastern Townships, Dr. Yannick Poulin says it's important for regions to support their neighbours. (CBC)

"It's a situation we have to face together and we have to come out of it together," he said. "To do that, we have to support each other and help each other."

"Yes, the tiredness is there. Yes, we're fed up. But we have to do what needs to be done, and if we can help, we're going to do it," he said.

CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS spokesperson Geneviève Lemay wrote in an email the number of hospitalizations in the Townships is under control, with 19 people in hospital, and three in intensive care.

She added there are three patients being treated who are not Townshippers.

With files from Julia Page and Radio-Canada

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