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The emergency room entrance is shown at the Northumberland Hills Hospital in Cobourg, Ont., on Sept. 21, 2021.Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

The pressure on Ontario’s hospitals is expected to worsen in the coming weeks as more staff are forced off the job due to COVID-19 and admissions due to the virus climb, the head of the province’s hospital association said, calling it a dire situation.

Beds are filling up rapidly, with a record 2,472 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Friday, compared to 508 two weeks earlier.

And though the 324 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units pales in comparison to the peak during the third wave of the pandemic, when roughly 900 people with the virus were in ICU, that doesn’t mean health-care workers are breathing any easier, said Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association.

“We still have very, very sick people. We still have a very large number of people being admitted to intensive care,” Dale said. “I don’t know where the ceiling will be.”

As of Dec. 31, when 1,144 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, Ontario Health said overall acute bed capacity – which includes ICU beds – was 20,000, and 18,000 were occupied, including just over 2,000 in intensive care.

With COVID-19 case counts continuing to mount – rising so quickly that charted on a graph, it looks like a vertical line, Dale said – it stands to reason that hospitalization rates will do the same.

The situation inside hospitals is compounded by the rising number of doctors, nurses and other staff who have to isolate because they’ve contracted the virus or been exposed to it.

Dale said his organization doesn’t keep track of the number of staff off from work, but numerous hospitals are reporting massive absences due to COVID-19 diagnoses and some have started making tough decisions to accommodate.

William Osler Health System, which operates hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area, said Friday it had lifted a “Code Orange” – brought into effect when demand outpaces capacity – on Wednesday, and was using other methods to keep treating patients.

It said some patients were being transferred to other hospitals, and it paused its virtual urgent care service to redeploy resources.

Niagara Health paused its staff vaccination requirement “given the intensity of the fifth wave and the urgent need to focus on our response.”

“When our mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program was put in place in October 2021, the Omicron variant was not anticipated,” the regional health-care provider said in a statement.

“Those who are unvaccinated will continue to be required to participate in regular antigen testing, and our Occupational Health and Safety team is working with them directly.”

The same group announced it was temporarily closing one of its urgent care centres so it could redeploy staff to emergency rooms.

In Kitchener, Ont., meanwhile, Grand River Hospital said 200 of its 4,300 staff members were isolating after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to someone who did.

“Staffing in some units is a challenge that is being mitigated daily,” hospital spokeswoman Cheryl Evans said in an email.

“We’ve limited surgeries to accommodate only urgent, emergent and cancer cases until January 15 and are reviewing staffing across the hospital continually, to be able to redeploy staff and other resources to support the provision of urgent and inpatient care for our community where it is needed.”

Evans said the hospital is also turning to virtual care where possible.

A spokeswoman for St. Mary’s General Hospital, also in Kitchener, Ont., said 89 of its 1,700 staff were isolating.

“Bed capacity and staffing shortages were a challenge pre-pandemic typically operating at or near full capacity – something experienced by our regional hospital partners as well. With additional individuals seeking COVID-related care, these challenges have reached a critical level,” Dayna Giorgio said.

She said that of the staff members who are sick, many are experiencing only mild symptoms because they are fully vaccinated.

Dale, of the OHA, said that’s playing out across the province. People who are fully vaccinated are far less likely to wind up in hospital, so the high vaccination rate appears to be staving off a disaster in the province.

“It’s really the unvaccinated who are extremely vulnerable in this environment,” he said. “If (Omicron) was the original version of COVID-19, it would be the stuff of nightmares.”

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