A Toronto hospital network has put most non-essential outpatient care and non-urgent surgeries on hold as it works preserve resources to respond to an expected increase in COVID-19 patients.

Unity Health, which includes St. Michael’s Hospital, St. Joseph’s Healthcare and Providence Healthcare, made the announcement on Monday.

The network’s CEO Tim Rutledge said in a memo that the change will impact “all non-essential ambulatory care and surgical procedures” with the exception of “urgent and emergent cases.”

Rutledge said that the hospital network is also moving all non-essential outpatient visits from in-person to virtual where possible.

Ontario's fiscal watchdog has previously estimated that the cancelled surgery backlog from previous waves of the pandemic was on pace to reach more than 419,000 procedures by this past September and would take three-and-a-half years to clear.

“We know that any change we make to our services is distressing and challenging for our staff, patients and loved ones, and we will ramp up as soon as it’s safe to do so,” the memo from Rutledge states. “Right now we need to focus all of our efforts, our people and resources on caring for our patients and keeping up with this deadly virus.”

COVID-19 case counts have grown exponentially in Ontario over the last week as the Omicron variant has taken hold.

So far hospitalizations have not increased at the same rate, though there are concerns that there will eventually be a significant impact on the healthcare system due to the high levels of transmission.

In fact, modelling released by Ontario’s Science Advisory Table last week warned that ICU occupancy could reach “unsustainable levels” in early January without “prompt intervention.”

“It has become very clear that we are facing another significant surge of COVID-19 in Toronto and across Ontario. This new variant, Omicron is presenting all of us with a number of challenges and uncertainties. We are still learning about this new variant, however, one thing that we have all seen is the extremely rapid pace of transmission between people. This variant is moving fast,” Rutledge said in the memo. “We are taking steps at Unity Health Toronto to protect your healthcare services so we can make sure we are able to provide care to those most in need during this wave of the pandemic.”

The University Health Network also announced changes to its visitor policy amid the spread of the new variant on Monday.

It says that as of tomorrow visitors will not be permitted for inpatients who have been in hospital for less than seven days. Outpatients can be accompanied by one Essential Care Provider but only if they are deemed essential to supporting their safety while in the hospital.