Intensive care physicians and nurses share their concerns as they brace for an influx of patients that threatens to overwhelm hospitals due to the resurgence of the coronavirus and the flu.
When Canadians successfully flattened epidemic curves during the summer, the goal was to prevent hospitals and intensive care units from facing a crush of too many patients with COVID-19 all at once. Health officials wanted to avoid what happened in hospitals in New York City, where refrigerated trailers were used as temporary morgues.
But the recent surge of new coronavirus cases in all provinces beyond Atlantic Canada has already thwarted surgery plans and led to the cancellation of surgeries such as hip replacements at one hospital in Toronto and postponements in Edmonton.
Dr. Bram Rochwerg, an associate professor at McMaster University and critical care lead at the Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton, anticipates a surge of patients with COVID-19, and he worries they won’t be able to accommodate them all as more surgeries resume.
Unlike in the spring, beds and crucial staffing need to be reserved for medical and surgery patients, too. Traditionally, autumn in hospitals means scrambling for health-care workers such as nurses and respiratory therapists to backfill those sick with the cold and flu or who need to stay home to care for sick children.
“We’re all worried about it,” Rochwerg said. “You see the provincial [COVID-19] numbers creep up day by day. We see that critical care numbers [of ICU patients] creep up.”
The challenge, Rochwerg said, is to find a balance between adding restrictions to protect vulnerable populations such as residents in long-term care homes while preserving crucial aspects of society.
Rochwerg also pointed to several lessons physicians worldwide have learned to help take better care of patients critically ill with COVID-19 during the resurgence.
“We should treat them like we would any other patient,” he said. “Sometimes, you just need [to insert] a breathing tube.”
When patients are on a ventilator, it takes the skilled hands of four to six hospital staff, including a respiratory therapist who regularly checks the breathing set up and tubing to ensure the airway is protected, as well as nurses to safely turn or “prone” them onto the stomach to improve ventilation.