As a fourth wave of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm hospitals on the Prairies, the chief medical officer of the Saskatchewan health authority says the province will not be able to handle a serious collision like the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus accident if it happens today.
Susan Shaw said on Friday that rising COVID-19 cases have pushed resources to the limit and intensive care unit beds are full.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic,” Dr. Shaw said. “I think it would be challenging to handle something like a Broncos collision if it just happened.”
Saskatchewan and Alberta have by far the highest infection rates in the country, which has translated to the highest per capita rates for hospital and ICU admissions. Both provinces have canceled surgeries to free up staff and make room for new COVID-19 patients, who are expected to continue showing up in emergency rooms for at least the next few weeks.
Alberta canceled all non-urgent surgeries on Thursday, and governments in both provinces announced a vaccine passport system, despite months of insisting they would never implement such a policy. Saskatchewan and Alberta have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
On Friday, Saskatchewan reported that 50 people with COVID-19 are in ICUs across the province, close to the historic high of 52 reported on April 23.
The state has entered the first phase of its triage plan, in which choices are being made as to which surgeries need to be canceled to free up space.
Dr. Shaw said treating the many people injured in an accident would push hospitals into unprecedented territory and the result would be deciding who would get life-saving treatment. “I think about how we’re going to deal with it when we’re already at full potential,” she said.
In April, 2018, a bus carrying a Broncos junior hockey team rammed into a truck at a rural intersection near Armley, Sasq, killing 16 and injuring 13 others.
Currently, Saskatchewan has 79 ICU beds full and the province is making room to have a total of 175 ICU beds for patients who need COVID-19 and non-COVID care.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority said 125 COVID-19 patients will need beds in the coming weeks. It is expanding hospital capacity across the province to care for a total of 350 COVID-19 patients who do not require intensive care.
In Alberta, the province now has more COVID-19 patients in ICUs than at any other point in the pandemic, with 215 patients as of the end of Thursday, compared to a peak of 182 in May. Officials warned Wednesday that the province could run out of resources next weekend unless the Alberta Health Service is able to add additional beds. The agency is also seeking help from other provinces, either to send front-line staff or to get patients out of Alberta.
The AHS chief executive warned during a news conference this week that it has reached the highest level of response to a crumbling health care system. “I cannot stress enough how dire the situation in our hospitals is,” Varna Yiu said.
Dr. Yiu said AHS would activate the triage system as a “complete, complete last resort” if necessary. For now, it is educating employees on triage protocol.
Meanwhile, the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service, known as STARS, said it is busy shifting COVID-19 patients to the prairie to free up space in the ICU.
“I need to personally transfer someone already in my ICU who I know is caring for another ICU in the province. [by air ambulance], ” said Dr. Shaw of Saskatchewan. “And it is to ensure that all units have the capability and security.”
STARS clinical operations director Tracy Steele said that between September 1 and Thursday, about 16 percent of its calls in Saskatchewan and Alberta were for COVID-19 patients who lacked resources.
“Any time we bond with a patient, certainly a critical care patient, we won’t be available for that next car accident,” Ms Steele said.
She said the service has been asked by the government of Saskatchewan to staff another helicopter for a period of time, where its primary role will be to move COVID-19 patients.
This week, Saskatchewan and Alberta announced proof of vaccination systems and brought in additional public-health measures to help preserve their health care systems.
However, health care officials cautioned that this would not help with hospitalizations for at least four to six weeks, as hospitalizations now are a result of cases from two weeks earlier.
As a result, Saskatchewan is prepared for the worst of times to come.
Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said, “We have hit a critical point, and now our health care system has faced the largest test since this pandemic began.”
With reports from the Granthshala and Mail staff