Officials at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie pulled no punches when describing the impact the third wave of COVID-19 is having on patients and staff at the facility.
At a media briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Chris Martin, Chief and Medical Director of the Critical Care Unit, said the frontlines of critical care have been stressful since the pandemic began, but no more than right now.
“We have been asked to take on not only our own community in terms of the critical care needs, but we have also been asked to help our neighbours and friends to the south. The GTA hospitals are, as described, overwhelmed,” said Martin.
As of Wednesday, RVH was caring for 32 COVID patients, with 12 in critical care and nine breathing through a ventilator.
RVH President and CEO Janice Skot said those numbers have eased since the weekend when the hospital had 61 COVID patients and 18 in critical care.
“To put that in perspective,” said Skot, “six weeks ago, we had a total of three COVID patients and one in ICU.”
RVH is operating three COVID units, and there is a 70-bed field hospital located in a parking lot.
Dr. Martin said thanks to vaccinations the fear of getting infected, which was commonplace among staff in the first two waves of COVID, has been replaced by exhaustion and fatigue.
To help with staffing issues, Skot said 16 home care workers from across the province have volunteered to work at RVH. The hospital is also bringing 45 health care students, including nurses, physicians, paramedics and respiratory therapists in their final years of training to provide additional support.
RVH has accepted more than 60 GTA COVID transfers over the past two weeks and 165 patients since November.
In turn, RVH has had to make sure it has enough beds.
“We have transferred 50 patients to other hospitals in Simcoe Muskoka,” said Skot. “But also as far away as Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Owen Sound, as well as to an emergency overflow unit at the Toronto Congress Centre.”
“These patients are frightened, and they’re far away from their families. Some are dying alone.”
Lauren Gallagher, a registered nurse in intensive care, is just off work at eight months pregnant.
“I have been nursing since 2014 and this has been the hardest year of my career,” Gallagher said.
Besides worrying about her own health and that of her baby, Gallagher had to focus on her patients.
“I can’t imagine the fear they are feeling,” she said. “We’re the ones holding their hands when they are being sedated and intubated. They don’t know what the other side of it is, and we honestly don’t know if they are going to survive.”
“We’re the ones facetiming family and telling them to say you love them. We don’t know if it’s days or weeks of sedation.”
Skot said the descriptors are real.
“The impact of wave three has been described as an inferno, catastrophic and a nightmare. Those descriptors aren’t hyperbole. The current reality is all those things and more.”
For the doubters out there, who don’t believe the situation is as dire as is being described, Martin wishes he could prove his point with more than just words.
“I wish I could wear a body cam and do the rounds, and show everyone,” he said.
There is a feeling of hope amid the despair as more and more people are getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Since RVH moved its COVID testing operation to the former police station on Sperling Drive last September, staff have done over 90,000 COVID tests at that location and administered over 53,000 vaccines to people who are eligible.
Stella Johnson, who oversees the RVH Covid-19 immunization and testing, said she will never forget New Year’s Eve when health care workers became eligible for a vaccine in Simcoe Muskoka.
RVH officials acknowledged COVID patients are younger and they are getting sicker faster.
For those who have been to the hospital and see a lack of activity, don’t let those looks fool you.
“You walk in the doors of this hospital right now, because there is no visitors and clinics are closed, it looks somewhat quiet,” said Martin.
“When you go the COVID ward, or if you come in the ICU, you see a wide range of people who are struggling to breathe, or are isolated in rooms by themselves because they can’t have visitors.”
Martin was asked about the lockdown protests that have taken place in downtown Barrie for more than a month, with hundreds gathered without masks.
“If I could be there, the thing I’d like to tell them and kind of reassure them is that it is real. There are people who are uncertain of how bad it is, and I think there’s obviously a category of people who are just conspiracy theorists. You know, the moon landing was false and all of that kind of stuff. Those people you are not going to convince.” said Martin.
“I am not a policy maker in terms of the lockdowns. I think it’s me just clearly illustrating to them what the current situation is and how close we are to being overwhelmed.”