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COVID-19 cases are down across Canada, but hospitals aren’t celebrating yet. Here’s why

Global News logo Global News 2021-02-28 Emerald Bensadoun and David Lao
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As provinces clamp down on non-essential travel and Canada continues its rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, new cases of the novel coronavirus have seen a relative decline across the country.

According to the country's top public health official, new infections now stand at a national seven-day average of 2,960 cases daily -- down from the average 5,270 cases exactly a month earlier. Several health experts and government officials have also said that the country was still on its way to meet its September target of having everyone who wants a vaccine inoculated.

Despite the positive outlook, hospitals and health-care workers aren't celebrating just yet.

Read more: Montreal ‘once again the epicentre’ of COVID-19 crisis as city adds hundreds of hospital beds

A report published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information on Thursday found the total number of health-care workers infected with COVID-19 has tripled since July of last year. By Jan. 15, the institute said health-care workers accounted for at least 65,920 — over nine per cent — of Canada's 695,707 confirmed cases then.

The CIHI report also added 24 health-care workers have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic, including 12 in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta within the last six months.

Gillian Howard, vice-president at University Health Network in Toronto, told Global News that the organization has seen an overall decrease in COVID-19 patients over the last two weeks, but that the health-care system was still in danger of being overwhelmed.

As of last week, she said 95 per cent of the UHN’s beds were occupied and that ICUs were still full -- which could pose problems for health-care workers should the COVID-19 variants trigger a third wave.

Video: Alberta doctor shares experience designing COVID-19 wards at Edmonton hospital

"The concern is that the variants, which are present in the community, will drive a third wave and that if patients with COVID are admitted to the ICU, the length of stay is much longer than usual," she said.

"The other concern is the delay in surgeries and procedures for patients who require ICU beds following surgery or because of other health issues."

'Psychological trauma' for years to come

The decreasing case numbers of COVID-19 are encouraging, but Dr. Ann Collins, president of the Canadian Medical Association, noted that "it's too early to celebrate."

"No question it is good news, but we still have to be very mindful of the variance and what's happened in other parts of the world," she said.

The aggressive nature of the variants is concerning, Collins said, adding that health-care workers are still under a great deal of pressure.

"Being stressed is probably an understatement in many ways," she said.

Read more: New variants spark fears of turmoil at Scarborough hospitals after 11 straight months of battling coronavirus

Even as cases fall, Collins said many health-care workers -- particularly those working in the country's COVID-19 hotspots -- are exhausted, face severe burnout and have been forced to completely isolate themselves from family and friends due to the nature of their jobs.

Health-care workers have the added stress of working directly with sick patients who have developed anxiety or depression due to their illness.

"They've had to become almost like family to patients that they've been caring for in the latter days of their lives because no family has been able to be there with them because of restrictions around visitation and so on," said Collins.

"We expect to see some psychological trauma well beyond whenever we say that this is over."

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said that COVID-19 has put pressure on our health system that was "unimaginable a year ago."

As a result, he said hospital staff have also been re-deployed to provide support to a number of non-hospital services -- whether it’s running COVID-19 assessment centres and laboratories, working closely with long-term care homes to protect residents or on Ontario's vaccination rollout.

According to Dale, the only reason such staff redeployments were even possible in the first place was because COVID-19-related hospitalization crowding cancelled most scheduled and elective surgeries.

Read more: ‘The problem will be mostly staffing’: Ontario ICU doctor on hospital COVID-19 capacity concerns

"Now we have new, highly contagious variants that are circulating in the province, a vaccination roll out that continues to be delayed and a health care system operating under significant stress," he said.

"A month ago we saw an all-time high of 420 COVID-19 patients in our ICU, while that number has decreased we remain at an alarming 325 patients, which represents almost 20 per cent of open ICU beds today."

Some provinces seeing improvement

Out of the country's ten provinces, many say hospitals are now less full than they were at the height of the pandemic, though several still warn of several regions continuing to face strain in terms of capacity.

Last month, Ontario's hospitalizations peaked at 1,701 patients -- including 385 in the ICU, though the numbers have dropped dramatically over the last month to just 680 current hospitalizations due to the virus.

The COVID-19 Modelling Collaborative -- a joint collaboration between doctors and scientists from the University of Toronto, University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital -- said this week that ICU resources were still strained in "every region" and that 43 per cent of Ontario's surgical ICU's had fewer than two available beds, however.

Saskatchewan also peaked last month at a total of 238 hospitalized patients, including 33 in the ICU, due to the virus. The number has lowered to that of 135 receiving inpatient care and 16 in the ICU as of Saturday.

Manitoba also saw a gradual decline after peaking at just over 360 hospitalizations in December. As of Saturday, the province registered 189 current hospitalizations due to the virus, of which 27 were admitted to the ICU.

A spokesperson from Manitoba's Department of Health and Seniors Care said in a statement there were no hospitals within the province currently at or approaching capacity.

Read more: ‘Tremendous cost’: Coronavirus hospitalizations soar as vaccine raises hope

"As of midnight today, 206 individuals are in hospitals throughout the province due to COVID, the lowest number seen in this province since early- to mid-November. This includes both active patient cases and those who are past the infectious period but still sick enough to require inpatient care," the statement read.

Alberta's demand on its health system from the spread of COVID-19 had also peaked in late December. Despite the decline, the province said that the demand still remained high and warned that a rapid growth in cases would have consequences on its health system.

"We are maintaining the health system’s high capacity right now. If Alberta experienced the same sort of rapid growth that occurred in November and December while hospitalizations remain high, the health system would be severely impacted," read the government's website.

A total of 5,000 people have been hospitalized there due to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with the province currently at 262 hospitalizations -- 51 of which are in ICU.

British Columbia health minister Adrian Dix said last week that the province was in a "fairly stable situation with respect to available beds."

He said B.C.'s health-care system was currently operating at 74 per cent capacity, for a total of 3,531 available regular and surge beds. Meanwhile, he added ICU is operating at 51.7 per cent capacity with 367 available beds.

Quebec, which remains the hardest hit among all provinces, now currently sits at 599 hospitalizations, of which 112 are in intensive care.

The numbers are a far cry from the over 1,870 concurrent hospitalizations the province registered during the first wave of the pandemic, though health experts there have recently warned of a possible "nightmare scenario" of having to pick which patients are admitted to ICU and who will die should hospitalizations rise to similar numbers again.

New Brunswick currently has one person in-hospital with COVID-19, though health systems there have previously warned of staffing and bed shortages caused by the onset of the pandemic.

In Nova Scotia, there is only one person in-hospital with COVID-19, who has been set up in the province's ICU, while 10 are currently in-hospital with COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador.

P.E.I. currently does not have any patients with COVID-19 admitted to hospital.

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