GTA hospitals, paramedic services experiencing critical staff shortages amid COVID surge

A 'Code Orange' is declared by the William Osler Health System and staff are being reallocated to deal with COVID-19 cases. Mark McAllister reports on the latest hospitalization numbers and what happens when there aren't enough health care workers.

As Ontario continues to deal with soaring COVID-19 cases, various parts of the health-care system continue to experience critical staffing-related challenges.

“For the rest of the pandemic, we haven’t seen quarantine numbers like we’re seeing now,” Dave Wakely, the president of Peel Paramedic Union OPSEU Local 277, told CityNews Tuesday morning.

Wakely and the union said Peel Regional Paramedic Services declared the latest “code black” on Sunday, meaning there was just a single ambulance or less available to be dispatched on Sunday.

“Part of it has been call volume, part of it has been the pressures faced by our partners at the hospital and part of it has been paramedics who can’t attend work because they’re on quarantine,” he said.

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“Our members have been at this for 20 months. They’re exhausted and they continue to give and give and give, and I mean we’re going to be here until the end of this thing — but they’re definitely tired.”

Wakely said some people have been calling 911 for “non-urgent things.”

“They have COVID, they know they have COVID, they have a slight cough and they want to get tested at the hospital. The hospitals aren’t testing anymore,” he explained.

“If you have minor complaints, assume you have COVID, stay home, the ambulance services and the hospitals can’t support you coming in to satisfy your curiosity.”

In Durham Region, OPSEU Paramedics and Ambulance Communications issued a tweet saying the Oshawa ambulance dispatch centre was “critically” understaffed with less than half of the normal staff on duty.

When it comes to hospitals, many have reported experiencing staffing shortages too. William Osler Health System, which operates Brampton Civic Hospital and Etobicoke General Hospital declared a “code orange” on Monday, due to an increase in COVID-19 patients as well as a lack of personnel.

Dr. Naveed Mohammad, the president and CEO of William Osler Health System, said a “code orange” is typically declared “when demand outpaces capacity to ensure internal and external resources are deployed efficiently.”

“One of the hardest-hit hospitals during the pandemic, Osler is also once again receiving support for the transfer of Osler patients to neighbouring hospitals in order to free up capacity,” he wrote in a public statement, adding staff are working to continue providing care and noting urgent procedures are still going ahead.

RELATED: Ontario hospitals facing staffing challenges as COVID-19 cases surge

The City of Toronto recently announced a temporary change to how local emergency services would respond to calls amid COVID-related hospital staffing shortages.

A statement by the municipality said responses by paramedics to low-priority calls might be delayed during busier times as crews tend to high-priority calls, adding firefighters will now be responding to calls “where there is no clear indication of a patient or injury identified during the call-taking process.”

It said if there is a patient that requires medical care, firefighters will have to call on paramedics to assist.

Toronto officials said with paramedics having to wait in emergency departments across Toronto in order for patients to be accepted by the staff on duty, efforts have been underway to cut the time crews are being kept at hospitals.

RELATED: Hospital staff shortages could delay Toronto paramedic responses to low-priority calls, City staff say

CityNews contacted the Ontario Ministry of Health on Wednesday to ask what’s being done to address hospital staffing shortages as well as delayed offload times keeping paramedic crews in hospitals. A spokesperson on Wednesday and Friday said they were looking into the issue, but as of Tuesday afternoon a response wasn’t received.

Dr. Amit Arya, a director-at-large with the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, told CityNews he is “terrified” at what could happen over the next few weeks when it comes to the health care system and hospitals.

“The situation is just going to explode in hospital,” he said.

“I don’t know how we ever imagined a world where we could have runaway community transmission of the Omicron variant, have literally hundreds of thousands of people who are infectious and expect it to stay out of places where vulnerable people are seeking care.”

According to new data from the Ontario Hospital Association, there were 1,715 COVID and non-COVID adult patients in the provincial network of 2,343 staffed beds.

Premier Doug Ford and members of his government unveiled a suite of measures on Monday in response to the spike in COVID-19 cases, which are being fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. He said the province would be entering a modified Step 2 in Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening plan as of 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 5 for a period of at least three weeks. Ford also announced children would stay at home until Jan. 17 at least.

“Omicron case counts are rising exponentially across the province. We face a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead,” Ford told reporters Monday morning, adding the measures are aimed to “slow” the spread since it “can’t be stopped.”

“Now we’re bracing for impact.”

RELATED: Toronto hospital network suspends non-emergency surgeries due to Omicron variant

Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also imposed a previous order directing hospitals and regulated health professionals to “pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity.”

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the moves announced were “insufficient” and that stricter measures should have been put in place.

“The announcement today does not match the gravity of the situation,” CEO Dr. Doris Grinspun said in a statement, noting there are nursing shortages across Ontario.

The organization said the problem is being compounded by Bill 124, which caps salary increases for many of more than one million provincially paid workers.

With files from Mark McAllister

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