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Ontario neonatal units facing ‘unusual surge’ in capacity: health minister

Toronto-area NICUs trying to keep up with ‘surging demand’
WATCH ABOVE: Demand levels for neonatal intensive care in Ontario have risen. That's meant challenges finding bassinets for some of the most fragile little ones who require special care. As Shallima Maharaj reports, it's a problem some say should have been on the ministry's radar years ago.

The Ontario health ministry says the provincial government will ensure staffing levels are reinforced and additional resources made available at neonatal intensive care units (NICU) across the province following an “unusual surge” of sick and premature babies this summer.

“Hospitals have reported a unique increase in the volume of high acuity of patients at this time of year, and have reported that additional staff may be needed to respond to this increased volume,” the ministry said in a statement to Global News.

The health ministry said the situation “has not been previously encountered” and that their top priority is to make sure no babies in need of intensive neonatal care have to be transferred out of province or country.

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“We are working with the Local Health Integration Networks (LHIN) and affected hospitals to take immediate action to address the temporary challenges,” the ministry said.

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Mount Sinai Hospital, one of three hospitals in Toronto which offer Level 3 neonatal intensive care units, has seen a 10 per cent increase in the demand of NICU bassinets in July compared to the same period last year. The Toronto Central LHIN said it has a funded capacity of 117 bassinets, but on average over August the operational capacity was 121 bassinets

“We continue to care for some of the most fragile babies in the province – no babies are turned away, however, given the high volumes, we had opened temporary NICU bassinets in our hospital,” the hospital said in a statement.

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“Recognizing that this is an unsustainable situation, we are working closely with the TC-LHIN and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, to ensure that we have the required resources to make more beds operational for pre-term and sick babies.”

The Toronto Central LHIN said it’s in the process of adding eight additional bassinets and will monitor to see if more capacity is needed.

Mount Sinai said they are working with Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to address capacity issues.

Dr. Richard MacDonald, a pediatrician at Halton Healthcare in Oakville, shed light on the NICU surge by posting an email of a hospital assessment report on social media this week.

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“Not enough NICU beds, equipment, RN’s. UNACCEPTABLE. Where do we send these babies??,” MacDonald wrote in a tweet directed at both the federal and provincial health minister.

The post revealed that two out of three NICU units in Toronto were closed on Aug. 22 and Mount Sinai had only one bed available.

The health ministry said it is so far unable to pinpoint the exact cause in the uptick of neonatal care.

NICU beds are currently available at 51 hospital sites across 14 LHINs in the province including Level 3 NICU beds in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, London, Kingston.