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Norfolk hospital in ‘vulnerable state’ as variants fuel COVID surge

·3 min read

Hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots are sending critical-care patients to Norfolk County as pressure mounts on intensive-care units across the province.

Norfolk General Hospital’s seven-bed ICU is averaging over 90 per cent occupancy, with some beds filled by non-COVID patients transferred to Simcoe from hospitals outside the region.

“They’re desperately trying to open up (operating room) space and move patients out of the ICUs to be able to handle all these (COVID) pressures,” said Kim Mullins, the hospital’s vice-president of patient care.

Norfolk General does treat patients with mild COVID symptoms, but the worst cases are sent to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington — a designated COVID-19 hospital — in order to keep local ICU beds free.

“Our health-care system is in a vulnerable state right now,” said president and CEO Lucy Bonanno, noting that Norfolk General has postponed some scheduled non-emergency surgeries “to ease pressures on capacity.”

COVID-19 cases are again climbing in Haldimand and Norfolk. There were 191 active cases between the two counties on Wednesday, up from 160 on Monday.

The health unit says the rise is being propelled by the rapid spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, with 135 confirmed or suspected variant cases in Haldimand-Norfolk as of Monday, up from 27 three weeks ago.

Health unit epidemiologist Dr. Kate Bishop-Williams said the variants are spreading faster, infecting younger people and causing more severe symptoms than the original virus, which increases the likelihood of COVID patients ending up in the ICU and needing ventilation.

“We are seeing a high need for that space,” Bishop-Williams said. “We are one ICU here, but we are part of a strong network of hospitals that can collectively make sure we’re taking care of our patients.”

Norfolk General has a “surge plan” to admit up to 11 patients in the ICU if need be, Mullins said.

She described a few cases where COVID patients at Norfolk General deteriorated quickly and needed to be raced to a larger hospital.

“It can progress rapidly,” she said. “We’ve had patients who were doing just fine on low levels of oxygen and within a couple of hours require intubation. That has been a very frightening experience for staff and for patients.”

A lack of available intensive-care beds — and nurses to staff them — does not only pose a potentially life-threatening challenge for COVID-19 patients; Haldimand-Norfolk residents who need specialized care but are not in a life-and-death emergency may have to wait before being transferred elsewhere.

“What we might see is a delay in care,” Mullins said. “So somebody who has a fractured hip, they may have to wait at Norfolk General a couple of days as opposed to a couple of hours to have their orthopedic surgeon see them at a larger hospital.”

Non-urgent cardiac and neurological patients could experience similar delays, she added.

“If (hospitals) are not available for those programs because they’re full of COVID patients, then that affects the residents of Norfolk County to be able to access that care.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator