System 'stretched to max capacity' as neonatal ICUs see surge in sick babies, doctors warn

Ontario doctors are warning there are not enough intensive-care beds for newborn babies following what provincial health officials call a “surge” in the number of sick premature infants over the last few months. 

“We thought maybe it was a temporary surge of a week or so. It hasn’t been,” said Susan Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN). 

Hospitals like Mount Sinai in Toronto saw a 10 per cent increase in July compared with the same time last year in their Level 3 neonatal ICUs, which treat babies that are extremely premature or born with serious health issues. 

The three hospitals in Toronto with Level 3 neonatal ICUs have a funded capacity of 117 bassinets. Over the month of August, the average operational capacity of those ICUs was at 121. 

The issue came to a head earlier this week when multiple hospitals in southern Ontario closed their neo-natal ICUs because their bassinets were full, including the Hospital for Sick Children and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, as well as one in London and another in Hamilton. Mount Sinai had just one available bed. 

Oakville pediatrician Rick MacDonald started tweeting about the issue to draw attention to the lack of beds for the newborns. 

Shawn Whatley, president of the Ontario Medical Association, called on the province to fund more beds. 

“These are our sickest patients,” he said. “This is a reflection of our whole system. Our system is stretched to max capacity. We’re often forced to do more and more with less and less.”

Shawn Whatley

Shawn Whatley, president of the Ontario Medical Association, says the system is stretched.

But the LHIN for Toronto Central says there’s currently no indication capacity is the issue. 

“It may be a temporary surge and we do have the right capacity,” said Fitzpatrick. “It may be a new higher volume and we would have to plan to resource that.” 

Susan Fitzpatrick

Susan Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Toronto Central LHIN, says it’s trying to figure out the reason behind the surge of sick babies.

As of Friday, the Toronto hospitals had some room, and the Toronto Central LHIN announced it’s adding eight more temporary bassinets to bridge the gap next week.

The LHIN maintains no babies have been turned away as they started using temporary beds for the babies when they got to capacity.

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