Unvaccinated straining hospital resources
Hamilton General cancels heart surgeries to free up nurses, ICU beds
HAMILTON—Hamilton General Hospital had to cancel all cardiac surgeries for an entire day because it needed nurses and beds in the intensive-care unit for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.
The cancellation of all heart surgery on Friday was on top of recent postponed operations in neurosurgery, general surgery and other specialties, prompting Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) to warn the unvaccinated are straining hospital resources.
“It’s completely disheartening,” said Dr. Sunjay Sharma, medical director of Hamilton General’s intensive care unit. “To have surgeries cancelled for people who need it because resources are being utilized by individuals who likely could have avoided their hospital stay with something as simple as a vaccine is a difficult pill to swallow.”
During the fourth wave of the pandemic, 90 per cent of COVID patients admitted to Hamilton General have been unvaccinated — that number goes up to 99 per cent in the ICU.
The unvaccinated make up seven of eight patients on a lastditch treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) — only used for those who are dying and have no other options but are young and otherwise healthy enough to survive having a machine work as their heart and lungs.
“With the increasing numbers of unvaccinated being admitted to hospital and intensive care, we’re reaching resource limitations that, if the current trend continues, will make it more difficult for us to respond to the other illnesses like trauma, stroke and neurosurgery,” Sharma said.
“Having a lot of unvaccinated people is really taking up our ICUs and it’s taking up the resources we need to care for others.”
The warning came on the same day the city reported the death of a resident in their 60s with COVID, bringing the pandemic death toll to 409. The city doesn’t provide vaccination status of cases.
As the hospital’s own doctor pleaded for residents to get their shots, HHS refused again Monday to release how many of its staff are unvaccinated despite having a self-disclosure deadline of Sept. 1.
St. Joseph’s Healthcare said Friday nearly 13 per cent of its staff either have medical or religious exemptions, have not responded, deferred notification or are unvaccinated.
At Burlington’s Joseph Brant Hospital, 79.4 per cent of staff responded and, of those, 96.2 per cent were fully vaccinated.
In addition, HHS refused an interview request by The Spectator on Monday about why it has gone with a staff vaccine policy that is the bare minimum required by the province — in sharp contrast to some other academic and teaching hospitals. McMaster Children’s Hospital, which is part of HHS, is the only major children’s hospital in Ontario not imposing stricter measures than the minimum.
“The goal is 100 per cent vaccination,” Michele Leroux, vicepresident of human resources, said. “The policy will evolve to achieve this goal over the upcoming weeks and months.”
St. Joseph’s also refused an interview request and gave a similar statement about its bareminimum policy that it hopes will prompt all of its eligible workers to get immunized.
“If we do not achieve this goal, we will have to move to mandatory vaccination, just as other hospitals in Ontario have done,” Judy Hunter, vice-president of people, culture and diversity, said.
The vast majority of COVID patients at St. Joseph’s are also not fully vaccinated — 94 per cent since Aug. 7 — although the hospital hasn’t had to cancel any surgeries as a result.
“The overwhelming majority of patients who end up in the ICU … are quite angry and upset that they didn’t get the vaccine when they are faced with the prospect of being put on a ventilator,” Sharma said. “It’s just hard to watch as a health-care professional because you never want to see any of your patients feel that degree of despair and to know that could have been prevented by a simple injection. You just feel very bad for them and frustrated.”
He said patients give a wide variety of reasons why they didn’t get vaccinated, but many have a similar theme.
“The reason we’re seeing this high degree of skepticism is that people are getting their medical advice on social media and not from trusted medical professionals,” Sharma said. “We need to educate people more. We really need to highlight that the response to COVID is a societal response and if a small group of people don’t do their part, it impacts the entirety of society.”
He gives the example of the terrible toll on patients and their families of that “exceptionally bad day” when all heart surgeries were cancelled.
“As a family, I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to have ... health care denied or postponed because resources were being utilized by people who weren’t doing their part and getting vaccinated,” said Sharma. “If you were that patient geared up for your heart surgery Thursday night and on Friday morning you were all ready to go in and told you can’t do it because another unvaccinated COVID patient has landed in the ICU, I can’t imagine the degree of frustration.”
Sharma says it’s time to start putting pressure on the unvaccinated to help them understand the implications.
“I think the vaccine passport is a great idea and workplace vaccination policies, I think these are important first steps,” he said.
The Hamilton surgery cancellations were made public on the same day that dozens of protesters targeted Toronto hospitals to speak out against vaccine mandates. Burlington’s hospital has also been the target of protesters.
Mayors and chairs from 11 municipal governments across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area condemned the protests.
“While everyone has the right to protest, it does not give licence to harass hospital workers and obstruct access to care,” said Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger. “This abhorrent behaviour will not be tolerated.”
Hamilton-Centre MPP and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath proposed safety-zone legislation to address anti-public health harassment at hospitals.
“The doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists are all burnt out after the third wave,” said Sharma. “It was a bit of a blow to realize we were going back into a fourth wave but everyone has pulled up their boots and is going into work and taking fantastic care of the patients. But to do that in the context of people protesting your job is very hard. It causes a lot of moral distress and it makes an incredibly difficult situation orders of magnitude worse. To think that people that one day you’re going to be caring for probably are outside protesting.”