Montreal hospitals running short on space, 2 weeks from reopening

Quebec has two weeks to clear a backlog of COVID-19 patients recovering in Montreal-area hospitals, physicians say, or the city’s health-care facilities won’t be prepared for the reopening of schools and businesses.

Hospitals in the Montreal area are currently running out of beds, three weeks after health authorities stopped sending elderly patients back into the province’s long-term care network, where the coronavirus continues to spread and claim dozens of lives each day. 

“This is a new problem and it needs to be addressed fast,” said Gilbert Boucher, head of Quebec’s association of emergency medicine specialists.

“There are a certain amount of beds dedicated to COVID-positive patients on the island of Montreal. And those are full. There are still other beds in the hospitals that are empty, but they are fewer and fewer.”

The problem, Boucher said, isn’t an influx of new cases. Hospitalizations have remained stable for several weeks, a point the government has used to declare it has the outbreak under control. 

But most of the hospitalized cases are from long-term care centres, known as CHSLDs. Patients who are recovering, and no longer require hospital care, have nowhere else to go because they might still be COVID-positive and the centres are grappling with outbreaks. 

‘We need space’

According to the latest figures made available by provincial health officials — which date from May 1 — 4,280 of Montreal’s 6,300 hospital beds were being used. (That includes 880 COVID-19 patients.)

The situation is tighter off the island. In Laval, 486 of 500 hospital beds were being used (86 COVID-19 patients), and in the Montérégie, south of Montreal, 1,760 of 2,000 were in use (160 COVID-19 patients). 

Clearing that backlog will be a critical if Premier François Legault wants to stick to his May 19 timeline for reopening elementary schools and retail stores in the Montreal area.

“It has to happen in the next two weeks,” Boucher told CBC News. “If confinement happens, we need space in the hospitals to take care of those COVID patients.” 

Legault has already altered his plan once. Earlier this week he pushed back the reopening of retail stores in Montreal, which had initially been scheduled for next Monday. 

He said hospitals in the Montreal area were too crowded, and didn’t have enough capacity to comfortably treat the increase in cases expected to result from the easing of confinement measures which have been in place for more than a month.

Health Minister Danielle McCann says the massive staffing shortage in the health-care system is limiting how many patients can be transferred to temporary wards. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The province has set aside roughly 700 beds around Montreal to serve as temporary recovery wards, converting hotels, hockey rinks and other sites to accommodate the hospital overflow. 

But on Wednesday, Health Minister Danielle McCann said the massive staffing shortage in the health-care system — more than 11,000 workers are absent daily — is limiting how many patients can be transferred to these temporary wards.

“We have the physical locations, but we don’t have the personnel to transfer more people who are currently in hospitals but who could be moved to the buffer zones,” McCann told reporters. 

Diverted far away 

In order to relieve the pressure on Montreal hospitals, patients are being diverted. McCann revealed on Wednesday that some patients have been sent as far away as Trois-Rivières, about 140 kilometres from Montreal.

Emergency rooms in the Montreal area are also busier than they have been in weeks, according to health ministry figures, though visits are still down compared to the same period last year.

Much of that increased traffic are people who had avoided the ER at the outset of the pandemic because they feared catching the virus, said François de Champlain, an emergency room physician at the McGill University Health Centre.

Hospitalizations have remained stable for several weeks, a point the government has used to declare it has the outbreak under control. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

“A lot of people are now realizing they cannot postpone their health issues anymore,” de Champlain said. “We’re seeing a lot of patients who ignored their symptoms for so long, such as chest pain, and they suddenly present with full-blown MIs [heart attacks].”

But de Champlain also said it was important to keep hospitals from operating at 100 per cent capacity, so they’re able to absorb a potential influx of new cases once confinement measures are lifted.

“It’s going to be difficult to police [public health directives] while you’re opening the schools and stores. And we are concerned about a potential surge of transmissions,” he said. 

Quebec’s public health director, Horacio Arruda, said the situation in Montreal’s hospitals, while stable, is still concerning.

“We still have room to manoeuvre,” he told reporters at Wednesday’s briefing. “But we’ll re-evaluate the numbers throughout the week.”

Legault was not present at Wednesday’s news conference.

Dr. Nadia Alam of Georgetown, Ont., describes how one elderly patient didn’t want to be on a ventilator and how her children are afraid that she, too, may get sick. 10:28

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