Ottawa

Hospital staff bracing for the worst as ICU beds fill up

As the unrelenting surge of COVID-19 patients — including a growing number from outside Ottawa — continues to push the city's intensive care units toward capacity, some health-care professionals say they're worried about how much more they can handle.

COVID-19 patients from outside Ottawa adding to the pressure

Nurse Alicia Robblee, 39, works in the critical care unit of the Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

As the unrelenting surge of COVID-19 patients — including a growing number from outside Ottawa — continues to push the city's intensive care units toward capacity, some health-care professionals say they're worried about how much more they can handle.

When she finished her shift at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus on Sunday night, ICU nurse Alicia Robblee said half of the unit's 30 beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients.

"We are now facing our biggest surge yet of COVID patients in the unit, and it's really scary not knowing how bad it's going to get," Robblee said.

As of Monday, 56 of The Ottawa Hospital's 68 ICU beds were occupied, nearly half by COVID-19 patients. At the time, seven of those patients were from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and four more were expected within 48 hours.

At the Montfort Hospital, 12 of 17 critical care beds were occupied Monday, including three by patients from outside the region, with another two expected by Wednesday.

The Queensway Carleton Hospital has 12 ICU beds, but as of Monday had 14 patients in intensive care including three from out of town. CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital in Ottawa, also has 12 ICU beds, and has offered to make room for adult patients if needed.

A nurse tends to a patient in the intensive care unit of The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Alicia Robblee)

Triage based on provincial needs

Dr. James Downar, a palliative care doctor at the University of Ottawa and a member of the provincial bioethics table, is also an author of Ontario's triage plan, which sets out guidelines for access to critical care.

Under the plan, regional hospitals can't prioritize ICU beds or ventilators for their own residents, and must instead consider the provincewide need.

"We are all Ontarians contributing to the same health-care system, and we are all relying on the same pool of resources in the event of a serious crisis," said Downar.

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Downar said reserving ICU critical care beds for local residents would be "manifestly unfair" to Ontarians living in higher-risk areas of the province.

"We see the real hot spots in certain parts of the GTA and southern Ontario, where you see high concentrations of racialized people with lower socioeconomic status and crowded communities where there is traditionally poor access to health," he said.

According to The Ottawa Hospital's president and CEO Cameron Love, the situation there hasn't yet reached the point where doctors assigning critical care beds would have to decide between local residents and patients from out of town.

Robblee, left, and a colleague stand beside one of the unit's few unoccupied beds. (Submitted by Alicia Robblee)

Patients younger, sicker

Robblee, who has worked in the ICU for the past nine years and is now training nurses diverted from other units to work in critical care, said under normal circumstances, each nurse is responsible for one patient. Robblee said her managers have told her that she could be asked to care for as many as four patients at once.

 

Robblee said she's concerned about the way things are trending.

"We are seeing patients younger and younger," she said. "When patients come to us they're coming because they need to be intubated and put on life support. They're fighting for their lives, and a lot of them don't make it." 

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