Confusion reigns over Saskatchewan’s plans to move ICU patients out of province


Saskatchewan has not clarified why Ontario thought it would receive a total of 12 ICU patients from the province by the end of the week or why that now appears to have changed.

Registered nurse Jose Pasion tends to a patient in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital, in north-east Toronto, on Apr. 8, 2021.(Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Saskatchewan says it will release more information on its plans to transfer ICU patients out of the province later on Thursday.

The move comes as Saskatchewan's push to alleviate pressure on its battered intensive care units descended into confusion Wednesday.

The province has already moved six ICU patients to Ontario since Monday, and Ontario Health said it was prepared to take at least six more as of Wednesday morning.

However, a technical briefing on Wednesday afternoon threw all of that into uncertainty.

Marlo Pritchard, president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency and head of Saskatchewan's Emergency Operations Centre, would not confirm whether more patients would be transferred out of the province or when.

"I don't know where that number came from," he said.

It came as a surprise to doctors in Saskatchewan hoping to send their patients for treatment, as well as the doctors in Ontario preparing to receive them.

Health-care workers from both provinces took to social media to decry what they say is a purposeful decision to pull back on patient transfers.

Dr. Jeremy Katulka, an intensive care doctor in Saskatoon, tweeted that the decision-making process has left many health-care workers in the dark on what is going on, despite them being the ones dealing with COVID-19 patients in ICUs.

Several of my patients were selected for evacuation to Ontario this week. Though clinical teams played no role in choosing who went (all handled higher up), we worked hard to ensure that handover and transfer were as safe as possible.


In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, Katulka said he was personally looking after three patients who were transferred from Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital to Ontario earlier this week. He was mentally preparing to transfer more when he saw on social media that further evacuations were being halted.

"The expectation, or what we were told, was that we were evacuating until things were at a safe level and the system could breathe and recover for a little bit," he said.

"Getting six patients out of [Saskatchewan] ICUs helps, but it does not bring us down to a load level that is consistent with that margin of safety."

Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said the hospital was anticipating a Saskatchewan patient on Thursday. That's no longer happening and it's not clear why.

"As the #COVID19SK ICU situation has not improved, this decision is confusing. We remain willing and able to assist," Warner wrote in a tweet.

Update:<a href="">@SKGov</a> has just cancelled transfers to ON beyond the initial 6 <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#COVID</a> ICU patients already announced.<br><br>We will not be receiving a patient tomorrow.<br><br>As the <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#COVID19SK</a> ICU situation has not improved, this decision is confusing.<br><br>We remain willing and able to assist. <a href=""></a>


Warner has previously told CBC News that Ontario has the capacity to assist Saskatchewan.

"Within Ontario, we have 2,300 ICU beds and about 1,700 are occupied today; we have tremendous capacity to help without endangering the health of Ontarians," he said.

In a statement issued just before noon on Thursday, the provincial government said its ICU capacity is assessed on an hourly basis by medical professionals and other experts.

"The issue of out of province transfers is an extremely complicated process which requires a high level of technical consideration, medical oversight and review," the statement read.

The province said more information on transfers will be released later on Thursday and that all confirmed out-of-province transfers would come through official government sources.

Unverified social media posts should be disregarded, it concluded.

The statement did not clarify any of the confusion around why Ontario thought it would receive a total of 12 ICU patients from the province by the end of the week or whether anything has changed.

As of Wednesday, there were 82 COVID-19 patients in Saskatchewan's ICUs.

Modelling released Wednesday indicates that figure could triple by January if there are no additional public health measures or vaccine boosters. The modelling suggested that gathering limits and implementing work-from-home policies would relieve pressure on hospitals.

On Thursday, the Canadian Medical Association called for more COVID-19 measures to be implemented in Saskatchewan.


Alexander Quon was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has an interest in data reporting and political coverage and started at CBC Saskatchewan in 2021 after spending the first four years of his career in Atlantic Canada.

With files from Jessie Anton

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