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Healthcare workers don personal protective equipment as they prepare to enter the room of a patient suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Humber River Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, in Toronto, Ontario on April 29, 2021.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Ontario’s hospitals, despite facing an unprecedented strain from COVID-19, will likely escape the pandemic’s third wave without resorting to a triage protocol that would have forced doctors to decide who lives and who dies, according to a memo obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Doctors and hospital officials warn that weeks of tough public-health restrictions are still needed to keep slowing the virus’s spread. Hospitals will also need to keep increasing their already-ballooned intensive-care capacity, postponing non-emergency operations and helicoptering patients from jammed facilities in hot spots to other beds across the province.

As of Monday, Ontario had 881 COVID-19 patients in its ICUs, more than double the total from just a month ago. But the rate of increase appeared to be slowing. (In all, there were just over 2,000 patients of all kinds in the province’s ICUs.)

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In a message to hospital chief executives dated May 2, Andrew Baker, the incident commander of the province’s critical-care COVID-19 command centre, says recent provincial modelling is still “concerning,” even as it shows a lower estimated number of COVID-19 ICU admissions than it did two weeks ago.

The memo asks hospitals to put 284 more ICU beds, already identified as ready to go at short notice, into operation and to prepare to receive more transferred patients. And it says the command centre will monitor staffing levels, and the effects of recent moves to transfer more elderly patients into long-term care homes, to determine whether hospitals should try to create even more critical-care capacity.

But the memo adds that it now looks as though the worst can be avoided: “I also wanted to share with you and your teams that we are increasingly confident that we will not need to activate the Emergency Standard of Care or recommend the use of the triage protocol.”

Requests for comment from Dr. Baker, who is chair of the critical-care department at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, were referred to Ontario Health, the government agency that oversees health care in the province.

Ontario Health executive vice-president Chris Simpson, also a Kingston cardiologist, said the worst-case scenario from the most recent modelling by the province’s external COVID-19 Science Table – which projected the potential for more than 1,400 COVID-19 patients in the province’s ICUs by month’s end – would mean triage could be necessary.

But the province appears to be tracking the modelling’s mid-range scenario, in which ICU admissions crest around 1,000 before descending gradually.

“I think that scenario, if that were to unfold, does keep us out of triage-tool territory,” Dr. Simpson said. “But only because of the extra capacity that we have been able to bring online.”

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He cautioned that the stresses on the system were already having effects on the quality of care for patients. He also raised concerns there could be “tremendous pressure” to reopen the province too quickly if cases continue to plateau or fall. Doing so, he warned, could plunge the province into a fourth wave.

Kevin Smith, president and CEO of University Health Network, which includes Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret hospitals, said even as numbers appear to be levelling off, hospitals and their staff are stretched past their normal limits. To avoid the worst, he said Ontarians need to keep following strict public-health rules, get vaccinated as quickly as possible and not let their guard down over the May long weekend.

“I would certainly hate for anyone to think that this is a time to relax,” he said. “Absolutely that is not the case.”

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said the science table predictions are cause for hope, noting that daily new infection numbers have been moderating. (Ontario recorded 3,436 new cases on Monday, down from a peak of more than 4,800 in mid-April.)

But he said nothing about COVID-19 can be taken for granted. Even if these encouraging trends continue, he said, the health care system will still be in a state of massive disruption for months, noting that more than 250,000 operations have been postponed in the pandemic.

“There’s nothing natural or normal about any of this,” Mr. Dale said.

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Ontario’s triage protocol has been clouded by secrecy. A draft was only made public after a leaked copy was obtained by a disability rights group. Under the plans, incoming patients would be assessed for their likelihood of survival after 12 months. Those with the best chances would be prioritized for ICU beds.

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