Bluewater Health operating at fraction of capacity, awaiting second wave

Bluewater Health. Troy Shantz file photo

Troy Shantz

Bluewater Health is seeing one-fifth its normal patient caseload and is currently treating just a handful of COVID-19 cases, but it still won’t be resuming normal operations anytime soon.

Having the resources are in place in case a second wave of the disease sweeps through Sarnia-Lambton is the hospital’s chief priority, said CEO Mike Lapaine.

“We’re walking that fine line between ensuring we have enough bed capacity, ensuring we have enough staff capacity, and ensuring we have enough PPE (personal protective equipment) capacity while we monitor what’s happening in the community.”

At the pandemic’s local peak in early April, 32 people were being treated in a 40-bed unit set up just for COVID-19. Dozens of other beds were available, as well as a 150-bed emergency field hospital at Lambton College.

The special COVID unit was disbanded May 6, and this week an average of four-to-five people were treated for the disease in a general medicine unit. Parking congestion is a thing of the past.

Two months ago, the hospital faced a shortage of N95 masks. Today, it has a machine that can sanitize 500 masks at a time and has a one-month stockpile of PPE, with more on the way, he said.

But the pandemic has meant a growing backlog of elective surgeries, which were suspended March 12 by the Ontario government.

“We were probably seeing about 1,000 patients a day come through our door Monday to Friday (before the pandemic),” Lapaine said. “And we’ve probably been below 200 patients a day for the last two months.”

Non-elective surgeries can range from same-day procedures to multi-day stays. In normal times the hospital schedules about 1,000 a month, he said.

Ontario said two weeks ago hospitals can begin ramping up to 85% capacity once a region shows it has a stable caseload and adequate equipment, medication, and beds.

Bluewater is still awaiting the green light from the regional authority, Lapaine said.

In the meantime, just two of seven operating rooms are in use and many diagnostic, ambulatory care and other supplemental services are reduced.

Once it gets word to proceed, the hospital will begin slowly increasing operations about 15% every two weeks, while watching coronavirus levels.

The pandemic has already added months to already long wait times for certain procedures, Lapaine said.

“That’s the thing we’re most concerned about,” he said. “We probably will have to consider going to 120% for a time just to pick up the backlog.”

But that won’t happen until the pandemic is well under control, he added.