At this hospital in Ontario, it is mostly the unvaccinated who overwhelm the intensive care unit

After landing in the hospital on Christmas Day, Randy Samms has spent hours considering how close he was to dying of COVID-19. Now he is looking forward to an opportunity he has long avoided: the day he gets vaccinated.

“I was scared of the vaccine,” said Samms, who was sitting in a chair next to his hospital bed on the COVID-19 ward at Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Ont. But now, “I want to say, ‘Definitely get the vaccine.'”

He is still recovering after spending two weeks in the hospital’s intensive care unit, where Samms was told he had almost been put on lifesaving. Even though he was able to leave the intensive care unit a few days ago, he sometimes still struggles to breathe.

In recent weeks, the hospital’s 14-bed intensive care unit has been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of whom had not received their shots.

The Lambton Public Health Unit, which serves Sarnia and its surrounding region in southwestern Ontario, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the province, with 77 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated. The Ontario average is 82 percent.

This week, CBC News gained access to Bluewater Health’s intensive care unit and its specially designated COVID-19 department.

When Samms heard that a journalist was in the hallway, he signaled that he was eager to share his story. “It could have been a lot worse,” he said in an interview. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

SE | A look into Bluewater Health’s dedicated COVID-19 department:

The mostly unvaccinated patients overwhelm an intensive care unit in Ontario

Mostly unvaccinated patients overwhelm the intensive care unit at a Sarnia, Ont., Hospital, and some will take home a new perspective on COVID-19, the vaccine, and life. 3:39

Samms, 64, who is from the Sarnia area, said he had been deterred from being vaccinated against COVID-19 after hearing about side effects from his daughter and a co-op student in his company.

The vaccines approved for use in Canada have been shown to provide protection against severe COVID-19 symptoms, and several studies have shown that the risks of the disease outweigh the risk of side effects.

It’s a message he now wants to share with others: “Do not be afraid of the vaccine,” Samms said. “You certainly do not want to be put on life support or put out because it can cost you your life.”

Samms said he visited Niagara Falls, Ont., About a week before Christmas. Within a few days of that journey, he began to experience symptoms. So on December 25, “I couldn’t handle it anymore,” he said. “That’s why I ended up here.”

He encountered a hospital approaching capacity where Bluewater staff took on the burden of both an influx of sick patients and colleagues who felt sick or isolated. “I could not believe how big it was and how busy it was,” Samms remembered.

His wife also became ill, lost her sense of smell and taste and coughed up blood. While she’s at home, the couple can only see each other on FaceTime. Samms said he expects they will both be vaccinated as soon as they can.

Dr. Mike Haddad is chief of staff at Bluewater Health. (Michael Cole / CBC)

Dr. Mike Haddad, the hospital’s chief of staff, said it could be delicate to raise the issue of inoculation with sick, unvaccinated patients. The staff always focuses on the treatment first, he said, and later recommends getting the shot – after the hospital stay.

“I’m not discussing vaccination right away,” Haddad said. “Some patients on their own say to me, ‘I wish I had gotten the vaccine.’ Some of them say they do not believe it anyway.”

As of Thursday, Bluewater Health said 75 percent of COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit were unvaccinated. In some recent days, Haddad said, the share was as high as 100 percent.

It is a higher rate than what is seen in Ontario, where just under half of those requiring intensive care are unvaccinated.

Young COVID patient ‘fainted’

In a room down the hall from Samms is 21-year-old Jordan Ayers; he watches sports on the small TV over his bed.

“I never thought I would be here – but it’s me,” he said.

COVID-19 tore through his family and first infected his niece, sister and mother. So on January 2, when Ayers got up to go to the bathroom at home, he collapsed. He can hardly remember what happened in the days that followed.

“I must have just fainted,” he said. “And then I ended up in an ambulance that ended up here.”

Jordan Ayers, 21, had to be rushed to hospital after contracting COVID-19 and collapsing at home. He was later put on life support and is now recovering. (Thomas Daigle / CBC)

The staff at the hospital found that his oxygen level was so low that he later had to be admitted to the intensive care unit and receive lifesaving. He is now recovering in the COVID-19 department and building enough strength to go again.

While it is unusual for such a young patient to need such acute treatment for the disease, Bluewater Health staff say they have noticed a new patient profile since the start of the Omicron wave.

“We see a lot of sicker, younger people – and send a lot to the intensive care unit,” said registered nurse Aleeza Dobson, who cares for patients in the COVID-19 ward. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”

Earlier this month, the situation became so troubling that Bluewater Health issued an open letter to the community and noted that it had more than quadrupled the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital, from seven to 31.

“Our intensive care unit sees younger COVID patients – many in serious situations. Most patients with severe COVID disease have not been vaccinated yet and we have discussions about the end of life with families of patients of all ages – not just older ages,” letter read .

In addition to reopening the dedicated COVID ward, the hospital closed all but the most urgent surgeries, while the number of sick leavers was almost five times higher than average. Nurses at the hospital also told CBC that several colleagues have retired during the pandemic and the remaining staff have felt the extra pressure.

Bluewater Health has seen a dramatic increase in COVID-19 admissions in recent weeks. (Sue Reid / CBC)

But Haddad said he hopes Bluewater Health has seen the peak of COVID-related hospital admissions in this wave, noting that the region’s increase in admissions started in mid-December, earlier than in other parts of the province.

“I honestly think we’re like a bell ringer,” he said. “I have a feeling the rest of Ontario is probably two weeks behind us.”

Haddad also points to the experience of some other countries in the midst of the Omicron-driven wave, where infections and hospitalizations have decreased as rapidly as they increased. He hopes to see the same throughout Ontario.

“I hope it gets up and down quickly.”

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