Some Canadian Hospitals Could Face Severe Shortage of ICU Beds in Coming Months, Projections Warn

April 14, 2020 Updated: April 14, 2020

If the number of COVID-19 patients surges in the next few month as expected, some hospitals could face a severe shortage of intensive care unit beds, according to projections by a team of researchers.

The model developed by the team, which consists of health professionals from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, anticipates that hospitals in many regions would need to increase their ICU bed capacity to meet the demand.

The model estimates the number of ICU beds needed to meet the demands of increased COVID-19 patients under three scenarios, in which 2.5 percent, 5 percent, and 10 percent of the population in Canada became infected over the next four months, as reported by CBC.

In the best-case scenario, hospitals in most provinces would be able to accommodate the increased number of patients, with the exception of Ontario.

As the infection rate climbs, the situation becomes more daunting. In the 5 percent infection scenario, some hospital regions across the country would have to at least double or possibly triple their current ICU bed capacity.

According to the model, some hospital regions in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba would encounter challenges in ICU bed capacity.

“What it’s really showing is that certain areas of the country are better equipped to deal with an acute stress like COVID-19 than others,” Dr. Andrew Boozary, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the co-leader of the research, told CBC.

However, the projections did not take into account government measures to expand ICU bed capacity. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Health has given general approval to public hospitals to operate on other premises under certain conditions.

Boozary said the projections will hopefully prompt health policymakers to pay attention to the “significant challenges” that certain regions would have to confront if the number of cases increase in the coming months.

“The hope is that this effort might spur more transparency about the needs and action on the capacity front,” he said.

Government Modelling Projections

On April 9, the federal government released its own projection model on how the pandemic would unfold over the long term, and it provides a more optimistic view of the infection rate.

It looks at “green zone” scenarios involving strong controls (1-10 percent of the population infected), “blue zone” scenarios with weaker controls (25-50 percent of the population infected), and “red zone” scenarios with no controls at all (70-80 percent infected).

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has said she is hopeful that Canada can stay within the “green zone.” However, to achieve that, a high degree of identified and isolated cases, physical distancing, and quarantine measures will be necessary for the foreseeable future.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said upon the release of the data that the current wave of the virus could last until late spring or into summer, with possibly other outbreaks after that.

“This will be the new normal until a vaccine is developed,” he said, adding that the current measures in place to combat the spread will need to continue, noting that Canada is at a “fork in the road” between the best and worst outcomes.