Saskatchewan

Transfer of Sask. COVID-19 ICU patients to Ontario ends as final person returns home

After nearly two months, Saskatchewan's transfer of critically ill COVID-19 patients to Ontario for intensive care has come to an end. On Tuesday, the province confirmed that the final ICU patient airlifted to Ontario had returned home earlier that day.

A total of 27 patients from the province were sent to Ontario for intensive care

A patient from Saskatchewan is transferred from an air ambulance to a waiting Peel Region ambulance at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Wed., Oct. 27. The last of a total of 27 Saskatchewan patients sent to Ontario returned Tuesday, the province says. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

After nearly two months, Saskatchewan's transfer of critically ill COVID-19 patients to Ontario for intensive care has come to an end. 

On Tuesday, the province confirmed that the final ICU patient airlifted to Ontario had returned home earlier that day. 

It's the end of a policy that produced heart-wrenching stories from the families left behind in Saskatchewan and tragic endings for those who didn't come home alive. 

While the transfer program has come to an end, many questions remain about the policy, including the total cost of the airlift. 

The decision to airlift patients suffering from COVID-19 came during the peak of the fourth wave of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan. 

The provincial government transferred the first patient to Ontario on Oct. 18, as it struggled to deal with a record number of intensive care patients. 

The province reported 335 COVID-19-related hospitalizations that day, including 85 in intensive care units.

Normally, Saskatchewan only has 79 ICU beds. 

But the peak of the fourth wave was far from normal.

Saskatchewan was forced to halt many non-essential services, including surgeries and organ donation, in order to shift health-care workers to deal with the surging number of cases. 

WATCH | Sask. family frustrated after 5-day wait for return of father's body from Ontario:

Sask. family frustrated over delays after father dies of COVID-19 in Ontario

9 months ago
Duration 2:01
The family of a Saskatchewan COVID-19 patient is criticizing the province for delays and a lack of communication after their father was transferred to Ontario, where he died but it took five days for his body to be returned.

Even those decisions were not enough, and Saskatchewan was forced to eventually airlift a total of 27 patients to Ontario. 

Only 21 of the patients would come home, with six dying in Ontario as a result of COVID-19. 

They included people like Ken Millar, whose family waited five days for their father's body to be returned from Ontario, and Dr. Yousself Al-Begamy.

Questions remain 

The accounting of the financial cost of the airlift is likely to continue for some time. 

Under questioning in a legislative committee earlier this month, officials with the provincial government released some estimates. As of December, the province paid nearly $800,000 as part of the airlift program. 

Officials said they contracted some of the flights used to airlift patients Ontario to private companies.

Two were chosen: Fox Flight Air Ambulance and Sunwest Aviation, which was contracted through STARS Air Ambulance.

STARS was not an option, due to the limited range of its helicopters and the necessity to quickly transport patients to Ontario, officials said. 

Twenty-three people were transported by Fox Flight while two others were transported through Sunwest. The total cost of the respective contracts was $545,000 and $96,000.

Two other patients were airlifted through a Canadian Armed Forces flight. A cost for those transfers has not been provided.

While the costs associated with flying patients to Ontario are now public, details and specifics on the costs associated with flying patients back home have yet to be released.

WATCH | Indigenous patient details emotional toll of out-of-province transfer:

Indigenous patient details traumatic out-of-province transfer

10 months ago
Duration 2:05
A Saskatchewan Métis man is urging health officials to be more sensitive when transferring COVID-19 patients out of the province. He says the process took an emotional toll and brought back painful memories of residential school.

There has also been no estimate released on what the province of Ontario may ask Saskatchewan to pay for the 27 patients it treated. 

Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman has previously said the province wouldn't get a bill from Ontario until the entire process was over and all patients were back in the province. 

The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for details on Tuesday evening. 

Along with the flights, Saskatchewan has revealed that it covered costs for travel, meals and accommodations for the family members of ICU patients flown to Ontario.

That expense was pegged at $142,532 as of Dec. 2. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Quon is a reporter with CBC Saskatchewan based in Regina. After working in Atlantic Canada for four years he's happy to be back in his home province. He has previously worked with the CBC News investigative unit in Nova Scotia and Global News in Halifax. Alexander specializes in data-reporting, COVID-19 and municipal political coverage. He can be reached at: Alexander.Quon@cbc.ca.

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