The Saskatchewan NDP is warning that hospitals are unprepared for an expected rise in COVID-19 admissions as they already grapple with increased bed occupancy.

On Tuesday, the NDP cited a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) Daily Rounds memo from the previous day. The document warned that “bed occupancy continues to increase across the province with a concentration in Saskatoon.”It flagged that as an “emerging issue,” and said patients may be redirected outside of Saskatoon as needed.

Hospitalization levels tend to increase in the days following an increase in COVID-19 infections, as patient conditions worsen. As of Monday, there were 14 COVID-19 patients hospitalized. But there have been 239 new cases reported since a spike on July 22.

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the SHA memo should send “big, big alarm signals” that the health system isn’t adequately prepared for what’s coming.

“As we’re seeing the case number spike of COVID-19, that means we will see more people in ICU,” he said. “If we’re already over capacity, what does that mean for what this is going to look like in the next couple of weeks or months down the road?”

Meili pointed to reports he has heard from front-line health workers that capacity is also an issue in Regina. He said patients are once again being pushed into hallways in emergency rooms as beds fill up. He called that the “canary in the coal mine” for broader bottlenecks in the system.

The NDP has repeatedly hammered the government for what it calls “hallway medicine.” But Meili said the risk is heightened in the midst of a pandemic.

“The hallways are once again being used as overflow for emergency rooms, which is never good care,” he said. “It’s even worse care when we’re really worried about infectious disease getting into our hospitals.”

The SHA has made efforts to cohort patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections. But Meili noted that the disease can be transmitted asymptomatically by patients who haven’t tested positive.

On Friday, the SHA confirmed that a patient who received surgery at the Regina General Hospital earlier in July later tested positive for COVID-19. They were screened but developed symptoms after the surgery. The local medical health officer decided against declaring an outbreak.

There is so far no sign that incident has led to further cases.

The Daily Rounds memo also warned that most testing sites in the province“are currently running at maximum capacity.” It pointed to significant public feedback about delays, but said those issues are being addressed.

There are currently about 1,600 COVID-19 tests performed per day in Saskatchewan, and residents have reported waiting days for appointments and days more for results.

Meili blamed the government, and notably Health Minister Jim Reiter, for underfunding the health system. He called it “bad leadership from a bad minister of health.” Meili called for a larger investment in health care.

The government increased funding for the SHA by $140.6 million in the 2020-21 budget, part of a $255 million boost for the Ministry of Health. But Meili noted that the sum did not change from March spending estimates, which were prepared before a pandemic was declared.

Premier Scott Moe has signalled that the government will provide whatever resources are needed to face up to COVID-19, though few funding specifics have been made available.

In April, the SHA revealed a readiness plan that would allow it to scale up to meet a surge in COVID-19 cases. That includes field hospitals that could provide hundreds of beds for COVID-19 patients who need them.

The SHA confirmed late last week that Saskatoon’s critical care system was put on a bypass. That means patients from outside the city in need of adult ICU services were instead being sent to Regina or other ICUs in the province.

“This action is being taken to continue to ensure safe and timely patient care as we are currently experiencing system pressure in our Intensive Care Units (ICU) in Saskatoon,” said a statement attributed to Corey Miller, SHA vice-president of provincial programs.

The bypass ended on Saturday, according to SHA spokesman Doug Dahl.