Ontario is planning to use more foreign-trained nurses to help deal with the onslaught of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which is driving a shortage of health care staff as hospitalizations soar across the country.
The highly transmissible variant again set records in Canada’s largest province on Tuesday, with 3,220 people now in hospital with COVID-19, well above the high-water mark in earlier waves. In the previous 24 hours, 80 people with the virus – a record high – were admitted to intensive-care units, the Ontario Hospital Association said, for a total of 477 in ICUs, up from 266 a week earlier.
But despite the flood of new sick patients and the staffing crunch, officials in Ontario and British Columbia said they believe the Omicron wave could peak within weeks.
“We’re getting the sense that we have levelled off somewhat, and if we look at what we’re seeing in other jurisdictions that have been ahead of us in terms of this wave around Canada and the world, we may soon be entering into the place where we will see a decline,” B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, said on Tuesday.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said projections suggest her province’s current wave could plateau by month’s end, with ICU increases slowing about two weeks later.
Ms. Elliott also announced a new program to send foreign-trained nurses still in the process of becoming accredited with the College of Nurses of Ontario to the province’s overburdened hospitals and long-term care homes to work as part of a team under the supervision of a registered nurse or doctor. Already, the minister said, 1,200 internationally educated nurses have signed up and she expects officials to start matching them with short-staffed facilities this week.
In New Brunswick, chief epidemiologist Mathieu Chalifoux warned that current trends could lead to 5,500 new infections a day – in a province with a population of just 770,000 – by month’s end, putting nearly 220 people in hospital. The province has 88 COVID-19 patients in hospital, with 14 in intensive care. Meanwhile, 377 health care workers there have tested positive and are isolating, and officials say they expect the impact on front-line staff to increase.
In Alberta, 708 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, with 80 in ICUs – the highest tally since November. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said this week she expected hospitalizations to keep rising and that the increases, along with staff shortages, would cause a “significant impact.”
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said his province is looking at speeding up licensing for foreign-trained nurses to help with immunization clinics. He said the province’s hospitals are at 95.6-per-cent capacity, counting all kinds of patients, not just those with COVID-19. The province also has extra emergency beds to help with the pandemic, and is considering the use of additional space, possibly at the Vancouver Convention Centre, if a field hospital is needed. Currently, 97 people are in intensive care with COVID-19, compared to 66 on Dec. 29.
Ms. Elliott said Ontario has 600 more ICU beds on hand and could activate another 500. She also said the median ICU stay for those infected with Omicron is seven days, much lower than the 20-day median with the previously dominant Delta variant.
Matthew Anderson, the chief executive officer of Ontario Health, said the rate of increase in hospitalizations in the province was slowing and the percentage of tests turning up positive had slipped. But he said it was too early to draw conclusions. (The positivity rate was 24.4 per cent on Tuesday, down from 34.3 per cent on Jan. 2.) He also said he did not expect a large increase in spread from the province’s decision to send students back to classrooms next week.
He said Ontario hospitals are looking at ways to redeploy staff to deal with personnel shortages. He added that the province has protocols that in emergencies would allow hospitals to bring back staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, with restrictions on where they can work.
The province had cancelled non-emergency surgeries, which it expected to free up 1,200 to 1,500 beds and the staff who would have been needed for the procedures, to deal with Omicron.
Mr. Anderson said the new plan to bring in foreign-trained nurses would immediately place about 300 in 50 hospitals, with more to follow to help with longer-term chronic staff shortages. There are also plans to use nursing and medical students.
“Every nurse matters. Every person that we can get to that front line of care makes a difference,” Mr. Anderson said.
Nursing unions have criticized Ontario’s PC government for failing to repeal legislation, known as Bill 124, that caps public-sector wage increases at 1 per cent. Opposition parties and union leaders say the cap is driving nurses out of Ontario just as the province needs them.
With reports from James Keller and Canadian Press
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