'There's not a lot of give left in the system': ORNGE patient transfers surge to keep GTA hospitals afloat

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TORONTO —
Ontario’s patient transfer service is moving more than double the number of COVID-19 patients than even during the second wave of the disease earlier this year — a crucial measure that is keeping intensive care units in the Greater Toronto Area from becoming overwhelmed.

Operating in a surge capacity has meant ORNGE paramedics are taking on more hours and more complex cases as they press themselves and each other to rush more patients to available beds that can save their lives and free up space for others.

“Every time we move five patients, it’s like 10 that get added to the list,” ORNGE paramedic Jonathan Lee told CTV News Toronto from the service’s Mississauga station. 

Lee said patients in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic are so sick that in the past few months he’s had only one patient that could even talk to him. He’s seen three members of the same family occupy a single room in an ICU. And in the span of an hour, he saw a hospital with just 12 ICU beds get four new COVID-19 patients.

“These are extraordinary times and we’re having to do extraordinary things,” Lee said of a crisis that dwarfs anything the 23-year veteran has worked on previously, including the similar coronavirus outbreak of SARS in Toronto in 2003 and the E.coli outbreak in Walkerton.

“You see these patients coming in after 30, 40 days in the ICU, they’re not the same. I can look at a patient who has spent the last two months in an ICU and is now going to spend months or years in a rehab hospital because she has a tracheotomy — she couldn’t breathe on her own,” he said.

ORNGE records show the service moved 209 COVID-19 patients in the month of January, and moved 570 in just the past three weeks.

The Mississauga office has ramped up vehicles, Lee said, and the agency has also obtained the use of a bus so that it can transport more people at once. The bus can transport up to three COVID-19 ICU patients at one time and was seen travelling from an undisclosed Toronto-area hospital to Kingston on Thursday with two patients on board.

Brampton Civic Hospital tops the list of patient transfer requests since January at 227; close behind at 173 is Humber River Regional Hospital, and Etobicoke General Hospital has requested 130.

Records show the new Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital has received 260 patients in that time, Halton Healthcare in Oakville has received 78, and Kingston General has received 66.

That’s one way the province’s ICU capacity has been stretched to a record 806 — a number unthinkable just weeks ago — 588 of them on a ventilator, provincial figures show.

“The figures for people currently in hospital, people currently in ICU, and people currently intubated are all at the highest recorded at any point in the pandemic so far,” said Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa.

The chart shows those numbers are still on an upward trend, and thinking about how to handle an even greater number worries Lee.

“There’s not a lot of give left in the system,” he said, saying that even though he’s working an extra 80 hours a month, he wouldn’t think of taking time off at this point. “There would be consequences to patients if I did that. I have an obligation to people I work with.”

But when asked about the hardest things he has had to deal with, Lee said it’s not the patients — it’s when he checks social media feeds at the end of his shift to find some people still aren’t taking the virus seriously.

“You hear people say oh it’s just the flu, oh it’s just not real. That’s probably the most difficult part for me,” he said.  

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