COVID-19 watch: State of emergency declaration and hospital funding brings some relief to worried health-care sector

COVID-19 watch: State of emergency declaration and hospital funding brings some relief to worried health-care sector

A day ago, the head of Ontario's largest hospital network was "very afraid" the province was on track to experience the nightmare scenario playing out in northern Italy, where the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has overwhelmed the hospitals, leading to unnecessary deaths.

But now, President and CEO of the University Hospital Network Kevin Smith says he's "guardedly optimistic" that won't come to pass.

"I think Ontario is significantly less likely to be headed for that, thanks to the premier's announcement today, than I believed before the announcement," he told QP Briefing Tuesday afternoon, adding that the data shows Ontario has been tracking with Italy, in terms of the spread of the virus.

The key to preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed lies in the stronger social distancing measures, including those the premier announced, as well as the additional resources being funnelled into the health-care system.

Premier Doug Ford announced a state of emergency allowing the government to ban gatherings of over 50 people and order the closure of bars and restaurants, except for takeout food and delivery; recreation centres; libraries; schools; child-care centres; theatres and concert venues, making mandatory advice given by the province's chief medical officer of health late Monday afternoon.

He also announced $300 million in funding — $200 million of which is provided by the federal government — to beef up the health-care response to the crisis.

"Right now, we need to do everything possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 in order to avoid overwhelming our health-care system," said Ford. "The health and wellbeing of every Ontarian must be our number one priority."

The funding is just the "first stage of our larger emergency relief package," Ford said, adding it will open 75 more critical care beds, 500 post-acute-care beds, and help hospitals set up 25 more COVID-19 assessment centres.

It will cover the cost of backfilling 1,000 vacant positions for registered nurses and another 1,000 for personal support worker positions as well as funding 50 additional physicians who will focus on COVID-19. It will also pay for additional personal protective equipment and additional ventilators that seriously ill COVID-19 patients need.

The funding includes $50 million for 24/7 health screening at long-term care homes, where residents are particularly vulnerable, as well as additional staffing and resources for sanitation and cleaning, and another $5 million for increased infection control and active screening procedures in retirement homes.

It also includes funding for respite funding for caregivers, funding for child care services for frontline workers.

Smith said his hospital network provides care for Ontario's sickest patients, and the new hospital funding will allow it to continue to do so, while still making room for COVID-19 patients.

"We're still going to have traffic accidents, horrible traumas, we're still going to have people who have unexpected cardiac events. So we can't actually turn off the whole health-care system," Smith said.

Ontario has also freed up equipment and beds by ramping down elective surgeries, Smith said.

Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist with Dalla Lana School of Public Health, had raised the alarm about the province's failure to implement strong social distancing measures on Monday and was very pleased to see the premier's state of emergency announced on Tuesday.

"I think this all moving in the right direction — we're getting moved farther and farther apart," he said.

However, he said it's important to note that transmission of COVID-19 in the community has already occurred, but hasn't been discovered yet, because the people aren't symptomatic and so they have not been tested, or are not ill enough to be hospitalized.

Public health units have identified some community-acquired infections — and the province's chief medical officer of health has been hesitant to confirm community-wide spread of the virus. But, according to Fisman, community-acquired cases represent hundreds of other cases that have not been identified.

The funding the province is pouring into the health-care system is "a start," he said, but cautioned that even optimistic scenarios for the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario will likely require more ICU capacity.

"It's a long journey, you start with a first step forward and they're starting, but there's going to be a lot more to come," he said.

Ontario isn't actively publishing the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19, but there are some and at least one requiring intubation, the chief medical officer of health has confirmed. There has also been one death.

"This is not a hypothetical," said Fisman. "This is a reality, we're living this now."

(The image used in this post was provided by the premier's office. QP Briefing did not attend the press conference because of the public health recommendations concerning social distancing.)

Jessica Smith Cross

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