The Canadian Forces and Red Cross will be sent to Ontario to help hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients as the province reconsiders its vaccine strategy in light of scientific advice that it could flatten the third wave faster by further targeting hotspots.
The record-setting rise in COVID-19-driven hospitalizations and ICU admissions in Ontario is forcing one of Canada’s richest provinces to rely on the federal government and smaller provinces for help. The small team from the Canadian Forces was announced on the same day the first patient was admitted to a “last resort” field hospital at Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital, which admits patients when there are no more beds left within the building.
The announcement was released one day after it was revealed that a 13-year-old girl in Brampton, one of the hardest-hit areas in the province, died at home last week after contracting COVID-19.
“The situation is extremely serious, this is the gravest civil emergency in Ontario’s history,” Anthony Dale, the CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, told The Globe and Mail. On Monday, 2,271 people with COVID-19 were sick enough to be treated in hospitals and 877 of them were in intensive care.
“The system is adapting to deal with this crisis but nothing about this is normal,” Mr. Dale said, adding he expects the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU to hit 1,000. The field hospital at Sunnybrook will soon be able to accept 20 patients. Its maximum capacity is for 100 beds.
Field hospitals have also been set up or are in the process of being built in Hamilton, Ottawa, Barrie, Mississauga and Burlington.
Two weeks ago Ontario sent out an urgent appeal for 620 medical professionals, such as nurses and respiratory therapists. But with many other provinces also contending with a surge in cases, there is little slack in the system and the numbers confirmed so far fall well short of Ontario’s request.
The Canadian Armed Forces said Monday they will deploy up to three multipurpose medical assistance teams. The teams will rotate through Ontario rather then go all at once. A spokesperson said exact numbers haven’t been confirmed, but the teams typically include two nurses and 10 medical technicians. The government hasn’t released the timing of the deployment.
The roughly 36 forces members are part of the 100 federal health care staff announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday who will be sent to Ontario. The Red Cross will also be deployed but no details were available Monday on how many people would be available or when they will be sent.
The federal support will “augment or relieve staff within medical care facilities,” a press release said Monday.
The first out-of-province help will arrive on Tuesday, when the air force flies nine doctors and nurses from Newfoundland and Labrador to Toronto. New Brunswick plans to send 27 medical professionals to Ontario. The province is hopeful Manitoba and Prince Edward Island will also be able to send health care staff.
Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said Monday the province asked Ottawa over the weekend for the armed forces to help.
“What we are looking for is very specialized nurses that can help out in our intensive care unit beds and medical personnel that can assist our hospitals that are seeing disturbing rises in cases COVID-19,” Ms. Jones said Monday.
Ontario recorded 3,510 new infections on Monday, but testing volumes were much lower than usual. The percentage of positive tests was 10.9 per cent, the highest the province has recorded and well above the 5-per-cent marker public-health officials say indicates not enough testing is being done. Still, overall cases have stabilized in recent days.
“It’s possible that the rate of increase is starting to slow but we’ll still see several weeks more of new admissions to intensive care,” Mr. Dale said.
Thousands of new infections and hundreds of ICU admissions and deaths could be averted if Ontario directed half of vaccines to essential workers and people living in coronavirus hot zones, the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said Friday. Its study found that a “hotspot-accelerated vaccination strategy” would cut hospital and ICU admissions by 14 per cent and deaths by 11 per cent compared with the prioritization plan Ontario had in place at the beginning of April.
The paper suggested directing 50 per cent of vaccines to the 74 hardest-hit neighbourhoods, while distributing the rest on a per-capita basis, including giving the hot zones their per-capita share. That would bring the total share of vaccines going to hotspots to 60 per cent.
Right now, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government sends just 25 per cent of vaccines to 114 hot-spot neighbourhoods, with the remaining 75 per cent distributed per capita.
On Monday, Health Minister Christine Elliott defended the current strategy but also said her government is studying the advisory table’s recommendation. Ms. Elliott said a decision is expected “very soon,” adding that the province is set to receive significantly more Pfizer vaccines beginning next week.
Brampton is the hardest-hit part of Peel, the region with by far the highest per-capita COVID-19 burden in Ontario. On Monday, the provincial government reported 909 new infections in Peel and 1,015 in Toronto – a city with twice the population of Peel.
Late Monday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said he spoke with Mr. Ford and was assured that hotspots would receive more vaccines in May. He said Peel, which represents 10.5 per cent of the population, was expected to receive 19 per cent of the province’s vaccine allocation in the first two weeks of May.
Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and assistant scientific director of the science table’s secretariat, said Peel Region has the highest weekly cases per capita, and is in the bottom third of public-health units in terms of doses given per 100 people. “You don’t need to be a scientist to tell you that something is deeply wrong with the distribution of vaccines in our province,” he said.
The need to focus vaccination campaigns on hotspots, and the human toll of failing to do so was made clear after the death of one front-line worker’s daughter, Emily Viegas, who died last week. Although Emily’s father had been recently vaccinated, her mother had not, and was admitted to hospital, with advocates calling for more to be done for the families of essential workers.
“It’s a dark day when you hear of a 13-year-old pass away,” Mr. Brown said. “There needs to be urgency to making sure every warehouse in Peel is vaccinated.”
With reports from Kelly Grant and Jeff Gray.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Emily Viegas died at home. She died in hospital.
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