Ontario's hospital logjam brings record wait times, before arrival of COVID-19

As Ontario hospitals prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show patients in this province are facing a record wait time for beds.

Average patient waited more than 18 hours to get bed in January, new figures show

The average patient admitted to an Ontario hospital in January spent 18.3 hours waiting in the emergency room, matching the previous monthly record wait time of January 2019. (CBC)

As Ontario hospitals prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, new figures show patients in this province are facing a record wait time for beds. 

New statistics from the Ministry of Health show the average patient admitted to hospital in January spent 18.3 hours in the emergency room until a bed became available on a ward. That matches the previous monthly record wait time, in January 2019. 

The news comes as Ontario plans for a possible surge in patients in case the COVID-19 pandemic leads to widespread transmission of the novel coronavirus in the province. 

Health Minister Christine Elliott insisted Wednesday that the province's hospitals will be able to manage the pandemic. 

"Our hospitals are absolutely ready to deal with this," Elliott told a news conference at Queen's Park. 

Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott arrive to speak to reporters at the Ontario Legislature following a meeting with provincial health experts and all party leaders on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

"If there is a surge in patients, then there are arrangements being made with all our hospitals," Elliott said. "One hospital in particular may be the one that will receive patients who have COVID-19, allowing the other hospitals to take up the work that was normally done."

But with evidence revealed by CBC News showing that many Ontario hospitals are routinely running at and above maximum capacity, some in the health system question how the province can cope with a fresh influx of patients. 

"The province's acute care system is already straining to contain "normal" volumes, and the impending pandemic could bring it to the brink of collapse," wrote Dr. Richard Osborne, a hospital physician in Toronto and Mississauga, in the Toronto Star on Wednesday. 

"In the absence of makeshift tent hospitals and the cancellation of all non-urgent admissions and surgeries, a coronavirus pandemic risks exhausting our system's bed capacity within weeks," added Osborne.

Meanwhile in Ontario:  

  • Health officials in Hamilton revealed Wednesday that a doctor at the Juravinski Cancer Centre who tested positive for coronavirus saw 14 cancer patients and had contact with nine staff members. 
  • Government officials revealed that a provincial employee of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in Sudbury tested positive for the coronavirus after attending an international mining conference in Toronto.  
  • The government will set aside $100 million for COVID-19 response, Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday. Elliott said it will primarily be spent on medical supplies.
  • The government announced new measures for long-term care homes, including "active screening" of all staff, students, volunteers and visitors, as well as new and returning residents who are to be proactively checked for symptoms and asked about their recent travel. 

The time patients spend waiting in emergency rooms for a hospital ward bed is seen as a comparative measure of overcrowding, and Ontario reports the statistic monthly. 

Through the final months of 2019, the wait time figures had appeared to be improving slightly in comparison with the same period a year earlier.

The average time admitted patients spent in the ER in December 2019 was 15.7 hours, down from 16.3 in December 2018. The average ER wait in November 2019 was 16.6 hours, down from 17 hours in the same month of 2018. 

The January figures are the most recent available. Ontario, which is now reporting more than 40 cases of COVID-19, reported its first coronavirus case on Jan. 25. 


Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.


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