Hamilton hospitals making plans to bring back services paused for COVID-19 surge

Hamilton’s hospitals have begun planning to bring back services halted in anticipation of a massive surge of COVID-19 patients that hasn’t materialized. 

And with provincial projections suggesting the virus is peaking, it’s unlikely that surge will come.

Local hospitals cancelled elective surgeries and cleared hundreds of beds to deal with COVID-19. The return to a more normal footing is expected to be a slow process over weeks and even months as staff determine what treatments and procedures will be prioritized.

“I think we’ve weathered the initial storm, but how do we open things up again in hospitals?” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton during an interview with CBC.

The question is: “How do we provide that care that we deferred for patients in the last couple of months  … while still being safe and protecting our staff?”

Projections shared by provincial health officials Monday suggest the peak community spread of the novel coronavirus may have been less severe than anticipated.

But that doesn’t mean Ontario is ready to return to business as usual.

The public must “stay the course” by sticking to physical distancing and emergency measures must remain in place to make sure the province stays on track for the best-case scenario, according to officials.

The leaders of St. Joe’s and Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) spent weeks planning so the city’s hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed by COVID-19. That meant contacting recently-retired staff, moving patients and working on a deal to set up surge capacity at a city hotel or convention centre.

Their efforts severely cut down on the number of people staying in hospitals which routinely operate above 100 per cent capacity. St. Joe’s recently reported 60 per cent of its 810 beds were being used, while HHS said about 80 per cent of its 1,280 beds were filled.

HHS set aside 300 beds for COVID-19 patients and St. Joe’s chipped in another 150.

On Wednesday the websites for both hospitals showed only 19 of those beds were being used.

Given those numbers, discussions about hospital space in hotels are now on hold, said a St. Joe’s spokesperson.

While the hospital is “grateful the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in the hospital are lower than initially expected,” Elaine Mitropoulos said the ministry requires St. Joe’s to maintain some surge beds in case it’s needed.

The city’s hospitals cleared hundreds of beds in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients, but only 19 were being used Wednesday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

In the meantime, the hospital is following a “cautious” strategy involving steps that slowly move it toward increasing capacity.

“At this point, we are only performing urgent surgeries and continue to assess the situation to determine when we may trigger an increase in services,” added Mitropoulos.

A similar approach is being taken at HHS.

“We are in the very early stages of planning for the reintegration of clinical services that have been paused in response to the pandemic,” wrote COO Dr. Wes Stephen in an email.

“This work will be a carefully phased over a matter of weeks to months, and will require guidance from the provincial pandemic response structure.”

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