As intensive care admissions climb to dangerously high levels in Ontario, health-care workers in the province worry they might soon be forced into the worst-case scenario of choosing who gets the best care and who doesn’t.
On Wednesday, Ontario reported 3,480 new COVID-19 cases. Although a third wave in the province appears to be levelling off, the number of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care units (ICUs) is steadily climbing, to the point where the province is getting assistance from Newfoundland and Labrador and the Canadian military.
The province also reported on Wednesday that 2,281 patients are currently hospitalized, with 877 patients in intensive care.
It’s believed the province could be forced to enact triage protocols if ICU admissions related to COVID-19 exceed 900.
“I just can’t say strongly enough just what a horrible position we’re in the health-care sector right now and why it’s so important that we really drive these numbers to the ground,” Dr. Chris Simpson, a cardiologist and executive vice-president of Ontario Health, told us.
“We simply have to get COVID under control if we’re going to have our health-care system back in a functional state again.”
Ontario’s triage protocols, developed in January, are meant as a last resort to determine who should be given intensive care when the demand for critical care exceeds the supply.
“It’s going to be extremely emotionally difficult for staff to have to make these decisions to tell family members that we’re not able to offer ICU-level treatments that we would have been able to offer in the past,” said Dr. Erin O’Connor, the deputy medical director of the University Health Networkemergency departments.
The situation is already dire in the Toronto area, where health officials have been forced to transport patients to other districts as ICU beds in the city fill up. Ontario’s COVID-19 modelling numbers from April 16 suggest the province could see nearly 10,000 new COVID-19 cases per dayby the end of May, even under strong public health restrictions.
“There is a wall that’s going to be hit at some point,” Simpson said. “We don’t know where that is yet. We do believe we can build about 200 new ICU beds per week for the next three weeks or so. It gets increasingly tougher, but we think that that will take us into mid-May and we can only hope that things will be cresting by that point.”
Under the triage protocols, all patients are assigned four colours — red, purple, yellow and green — depending on how doctors perceive a patient’s likelihood of surviving for another 12 months. Patients deemed red are predicted to have a 20-per-cent chance of surviving for the year, while patients deemed in the green have more than a 70-per-cent chance of surviving.
Under this system, ICU beds would be given to the green patients first, followed by yellow, purple and red.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to care for people,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to offer as much medical care as we possibly can, but some people won’t be able to be on a ventilator — people that we would have put on a ventilator in the past — simply because we’re in a situation where we’re dealing with scarce resources.”
The triage system puts doctors and other health-care workers in the unenviable position of deciding who does not receive the best possible care. It would even require doctors to decide who to withdraw from ICU care if they’re unlikely to survive for another year.
For O’Connor, the prospect having to tell a patient and their family that the province cannot provide them with the best care could have long-term consequences on the entire health-care system in Ontario.
“The hardest part really is going to be making these decisions,” she said. “This is going to take a really large emotional toll and I worry about my staff and I worry about people — after this — leaving medicine because they’re not going to be able to recover.”
“This is not what we’re trained to do. It’s not what we thought we would ever have to do in our careers.”
The triage guidelines are also terrifying for people with disabilities, advanced age or pre-existing conditions.
“There’s also this very real concern that I may be denied care based on protocols that say that I have a less likely chance of surviving,” said Jeff Preston, who has a neuromuscular disorder and works as an assistant professor of disability studies at King’s University College, an affiliate of Western University in London, Ont.
“It’s one thing to get COVID and die, it’s a whole other thing to say, as a Canadian citizen, I might not actually have the same access to health care that other Canadians are going to receive and that hurts in a different way.”
The triage guidelines specify that people with disabilities are not treated any differently than the rest of the population, but Preston is skeptical in part because doctors sometimes incorrectly estimate life expectancy of people with these conditions.
“When I was first diagnosed as a baby, they did not believe I was going to survive more than a couple of years,” he said. “They predicted that I would probably die before four or five years old. Now here I am, almost 40 years old, many years later and that prognosis didn’t turn out to be true.”
QUEBEC ‘FAR FROM TRIGGERING’ TRIAGE PROTOCOLS
Other provinces have also developed similar triage protocols in the event ICU admissions exceed the available beds.
In Quebec for example, prioritization protocols are similar to Ontario’s and those who do not receive ICU admission “will not be abandoned; they will continue to receive other care, the most appropriate for their condition and possible in the context,” according to a statement from Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services.
The department added that it is “far from triggering” the prioritization protocols and has not done so since the start of the pandemic. It has also expanded ICU capacity for COVID-19 patients to hopefully make sure it doesn’t happen.
“This scenario is one of last resort that we want to avoid at all costs,” the statement read. “That is why we are asking Quebecers for their contribution by reducing their contact as much as possible and by rigorously applying the recommended health measures.”
In Saskatchewan, triage protocols will consider a patient’s chance at survival, but also the length of time a patient may require the most care.
“These assessments must be based on the best available scientific evidence,” the Saskatchewan Health Authority wrote in a statement.
“Patients who are not going to receive ICU level of care will receive compassionate care. The sick and dying would not be abandoned. If a patient is not expected to survive, palliative or comfort care would be provided to reduce pain and suffering.”