ICU doctor sounds note of optimism amid worrying surge in COVID-19 cases

Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an intensive and palliative care doctor in Ottawa, explains why the current spike in new COVID-19 cases doesn't mean the city's hospitals are about to be overwhelmed.

Current uptick unlikely to flood hospitals, Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng says

Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, 42, is an intensive and palliative care doctor at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals. (Toni Choueiri/CBC)

A spike in COVID-19 cases has health authorities worried the province may be losing ground to the pandemic.

Both the Ontario Hospital Association and the University Health Network warned this week that exponential growth of the virus could spell trouble for the province's reopening plans.

Monday saw 313 new cases of COVID-19 across Ontario, including 61 in Ottawa, the largest one-day increase since May. The province's health minister called the jump "disturbing and significant," and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called it "concerning."

Tuesday saw 52 more cases in Ottawa, plus four more deaths linked to an outbreak at the West End Villa long-term care home.

But do more cases necessarily mean we're in greater danger of overloading our health-care system?

"When you hear there's an uptick in cases, your antennas go up and you ask yourself, does this mean that we're going to see more hospitalizations or deaths?" said Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an intensive and palliative care doctor at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals.

Dr. Jean-Sébastian Savoyard, left, and Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, right, pore over patient charts at Ottawa's Montfort Hospital. (Lucie Boyer)

More testing, more cases

Kyeremanteng says behind the numbers, there's a more nuanced story.

He points to a possible link between increased testing and the rise in confirmed cases, and the fact that many of the new cases are in younger people and are therefore "unlikely to translate into increased hospitalizations or mortality or ICU admissions." 

According to Ottawa Public Health, nine patients were being treated for COVID-19 in hospital on Tuesday, none in intensive care.

"So [increased case numbers are] a sign, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to translate into more work for us," Kyeremanteng told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

When it comes to hospitalization, the demographics haven't changed significantly since the pandemic began, he said.

"The typical patient has been older [with] comorbidities," said Kyeremanteng. "The ones we've seen in the ICU have … diabetes, hypertension, obesity, all risk factors … associate[d] with poor outcomes with COVID.

"We're not seeing younger patients. We're not seeing marathon runners. We're not seeing people that are typically young and healthy."

WATCH | Distancing measures keeping pressure off local hospitals, physician says:

Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, an intensive care physician at The Ottawa Hospital, says actions like hand washing, physical distancing and mask wearing have kept the pressure off local hospitals. 2:10

Young people still pose a risk

Still, Kyeremanteng said it's a mistake to underestimate the risk those younger, healthier people pose if they do contract COVID-19.

"It's unlikely that a 22-year-old student will be sick from this, but if they pass it along to grandma, that's another story," he said.

"That's why it's important to continue public health measures, to continue to mask, to continue to social distance [and] to continue to wash your hands," Kyeremanteng said. "We have to make sure there aren't increased hospitalizations … because that's a signal that we're unfortunately passing it along to those that are more vulnerable." 

Kyeremanteng said he's noticed a significant change in attitude among medical professionals, a sense that "we can handle what's in front of us.... It is possible that we will get busier, but we really did create the infrastructure … and the capacity to increase ICU beds.

"We don't know what the fall is going to look like," he said. "But there is more confidence in the ability for us to care for patients, more confidence that we're just going to get through this."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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