Sask. health-care workers on the brink of being overwhelmed as COVID-19 ICU cases climb

TORONTO — Inside hospitals across Saskatchewan, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, health-care workers are reporting a worsening crisis, with record-breaking COVID-19 hospitalizations pushing the health-care system to the brink.

“More than 70 per cent of our ICU patients are admitted fighting for their lives due to single, preventable diagnosis — severe COVID pneumonia, with lung failure,” Dr. Susan Shaw, chief medical officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said at a press conference Wednesday.

“We now have enough inpatients from COVID to fill both the Swift Current and Prince Albert hospitals combined. And the numbers of hospitalized patients are growing rapidly,” said Shaw, who is also an ICU doctor.

It’s a grim picture: too many patients, and not enough beds and staff to care for them. A shortage of medications. Hospitals are cancelling elective surgeries and now, even organ transplants are on pause.

Paramedics are having to wait up to 17 hours to offload patients as hospitals struggle to find beds and staff to care for them.

“Eventually, the system is going to fail, or somebody is going to get hurt, because we’re running paramedics into the ground,” Kelly Prime, president of Paramedic Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan, told CTV News. “And it’s not by choice, it’s by necessity.”

Officials confirmed that as of Thursday, 60 of the 84 patients in the province’s ICUs have COVID-19.

Hospitalized cases of COVID-19 have doubled in the last month, with ICUs so full that doctors have started treating sick adults at the only pediatric intensive care unit in the entire province.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Mahali Brindamour, a pediatrician in Saskatchewan, told CTV News. “And I don’t know anyone who has. We are all so worried about the immediate future of our patients and our health-care system.”

She said that because of the problems with capacity and staffing in the hospital she works at, “we’ve been asked to slow down services.

“And slow down meaning stop them completely.”

She said that any medical issue requiring surgery that is not immediately life-threatening has been cancelled or postponed, including surgeries for children.

“I had a little patient last week who needed a biopsy to rule out a very rare infection, and this was cancelled, and of course that could affect his life,” Brindamour said. “But it’s not immediately urgent, so all of those procedures, or those tests, or those surgeries are being cancelled in pediatrics and in adult services.”

Health workers say they warned of a possible surge in July when Saskatchewan removed restrictions and didn’t press the need for vaccinations.

Now the vast majority of the critically ill are unvaccinated.

“We’re seeing a lot of patients that are looking at us going, ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me,’” Prime said. “You know, when we picked them up, and they’re unvaccinated, ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me. My family’s vaccinated, but I’m not. And I didn’t think it would happen to me.’”

“We look them in the eye and go, ‘I’m sorry, we’re here to help you, we’re here to do our best. This is a decision that you’ve made, but we are not going to give up on you’,” she added.

Dr. Andrew Wong, an infectious disease specialist, told CTV News that “virtually everyone that is COVID positive unfortunately is unvaccinated, or just barely partially vaccinated.”

Doctors suspect if the rise in infections continues, they may have to limit medical care even further.

“We’re going to be faced with really difficult situations in the next few weeks, and it’s really not a situation that any first world, well-resourced setting like, frankly, Alberta or Saskatchewan, should ever have been faced with,” Wong said.

He said that during this pandemic, we sometimes forget that there are other medical issues that still need attention, and that those patients are not able to get the help they need when doctors are tied up with a surge of COVID-19 patients.

The situation in Saskatchewan right now is “pretty much the exact same situation as Alberta,” Wong said. Alberta has been a source of concern for weeks as cases have been skyrocketing. Over the weekend, Alberta added more than 4,600 new cases, and as of Wednesday, more than 1,000 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19.

“We’re unfortunately in the exact same boat, where we’re trying to create additional surge capacity now with our critical care beds, but like Alberta, our biggest issue is going to be staffing those beds, especially with nurses, respiratory therapists,” he said.

Brindamour said that they need more resources and more people, but with the health-care system this stretched thin, it’s not easy to find more workers.

“It’s not easy to find pediatric nurses, it’s not easy to find respiratory therapists,” she said.

“We need a government that is responding to our cries for help, we’ve been asking for measures we’ve been screaming at the top of our lungs for weeks without any significant governmental response.”

Charleen Cote’s mother, 70 year old Beatrice died of COVID-19 in a Saskatoon ICU earlier this month. She had been double vaccinated, but doctors suspect a medication she took for arthritis, called methotrexate, blunted the effects. As she worsened, what her daughter saw in that ICU made the crisis obvious to her.

“I see the shortage of staff. I see the shortage of resources, the shortage of ventilators, the shortage of space,” Cote told CTV News. “I see staff who are exhausted, staff who are suffering from watching death after death.”

Wong said that there have been discussions about having to triage patients, something everyone wants desperately to avoid.

“I think additional measures unfortunately are going to be needed, aggressively and quickly, if we’re going to try to get out of this as quickly as possible and with as little triage as possible,” he said. 

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