Sitting in her living room in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Kristin Whitehead felt a deeply ingrained sense of fear as she watched politicians one by one on her television and explained the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on the already weakening health system.
The stage 3 cancer patient has been waiting for an operation to have her growing tumor removed since October. However, as hospital beds fill with people hardest hit by the deadly novel coronavirus, she fears her potentially life-saving procedure will be postponed.
“It’s scary to hear that hospitals are already full and need to screen patients in order to care for people,” Whitehead told CTV News Toronto. “I have stage 3 colon cancer and if I don’t have the tumor removed it will spread to the rest of my body. I’m dying.
“It’s complex and frustrating and it hurts and I’m scared.”
Whitehead is one of hundreds of Ontario residents who may have an important lifesaving or life changing procedure affected by COVID-19. An Ontario cancer surgeon says doctors in the province are already examining patients.
Dr. Shady Ashamalla told CTV News Toronto that doctors are currently struggling to make difficult decisions about who can and cannot safely wait for an operation due to the varying degrees of urgency.
“There is no good evidence, there are no meaningful studies that can support deciding who can and cannot wait for surgery,” Ashamalla said.
“So these things often boil down to expert opinions or best guesswork. This is generally not the way we practice medicine. Therefore, doctors are asked to really practice outside of their known expertise and do their best.”
The surgeon warns that with the current course of COVID-19 cases, even the most urgent surgeries will be affected.
“This functioning health system will certainly not be able to sustain this number of COVID patients,” he said. “It’s not just the COVID patients who need the health system, the health system is there for everyone … and right now this system is buckling under the pressure.”
The number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 has increased 72.1 percent in the past four weeks, officials said Tuesday at the province’s latest model data presentation, while the number of patients in the intensive care unit rose 61.2 percent is.
According to the province, just over 1,600 people are currently hospitalized for the disease. Of these patients, more than 400 are in the intensive care unit and 280 are breathing with the help of a ventilator.
The government has previously said that once the number of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit exceeds 300, it will become nearly impossible for healthcare workers to provide non-disease-related care.
“I want to make it clear that the impact on our health system is greater today than it has ever been in Ontario history,” said epidemiologist Dr. Adalsteinn Brown on Tuesday.
He added that as the number of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit increases, doctors will have to make decisions “that no family would ever want to hear”. Experts say these choices can have life and death consequences.
Ashamalla says doctors have been sounding the alarm for months that the health system is getting to this point.
“It’s been a very frustrating process to watch, it’s like a slow-motion car accident,” he said. “Unless things change drastically right now, all Ontarians run the risk of not having a functioning health system.
“There is a break. It’s a finite resource. “
Ashamalla urged residents of the province to strictly follow public health recommendations. Additionally, he said the government needs to help keep people at home and comply with COVID-19 guidelines by offering adequate paid sick leave and quarantine places.
Kristin Whitehead has been quarantined at her home since she was diagnosed with cancer in October. She said she urged Ontario residents to take the deadly pandemic seriously in order to save lives.
“Why are you willing to put yourself and your loved ones at risk of attracting a deadly disease when you don’t have to? I already have one, ”she said. “Please don’t make it worse for me by making sure I don’t get the surgery I need to save my life.”