REGINA -- The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is doubling up intensive care rooms and expanding capacity in Regina to keep up with increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Lori Garchinski, the executive director of provincial programs & tertiary care for the SHA, says there has been a dramatic rise in patients requiring intensive care due to more harmful and transmissible variants of concern in the city.

"Due to the high number of COVID-19 positive patients requiring a level of intensive care, the ICUs are currently here in Regina now on bypass, in an attempt to load level critical care patients that can be safely cared for in other provincial ICUs," Garchinski, said.

"We're now at a point in time in Regina where we're beginning to place two patients per room in one intensive care unit, as well as our cardiac care unit."

The SHA said doubling up on ICU rooms is a part of its COVID-19 surge plan.

"We made sure that our staff were ready and we made sure that the infrastructure was available for it, but this action is unprecedented," Garchinski, said.

As of Friday afternoon, 81 patients are currently in hospital in Regina related to COVID-19, including 30 in the ICU, according to the SHA.

Regina normally has 27 ICU beds available. To accommodate the high hospitalization numbers in the area, the SHA has increased capacity by 18 beds.

Dr. Jeffrey Betcher, the SHA's Regina area lead for critical care, said the health authority has done simulations and mock-ups to ensure the safety of COVID patients in double occupancy rooms, including those with variants of concern.

"We've chosen to put two patients in a single room, rather than expanding to other areas outside of the ICU because it's more efficient to cohort patients within the traditional ICU areas where the full supports are available," Dr. Betcher said.

Patients who no longer required specialized care will be transferred to rural and northern hospitals to receive care. Dr. Betcher said these patients will be sent to hospitals as close to home as possible, and their care needs will be assessed before they are transferred.

Pre-COVID, the SHA said it averaged around 23 ICU patients in Regina facilities. As of Friday afternoon there are 45 people in ICU in Regina, including approximately 30 COVID patients and another 15 non-COVID patients.

Health officials will be keeping a close eye on cases and hospitalizations over the next week – two weeks after the Easter long weekend.

Officials are still concerned about a potential rise in cases, with household COVID contacts remaining a key area of COVID-19 transmission in the province.

"We are concerned about what has happened over the Easter time and we continue to make plans with our regional and tertiary ICU partners across the province to expand levels of bed capacity and provide manpower strategies to make sure we have the ability to manage those patients at that point in time," Garchinski said.

"What's happening now is really the result of what happened two weeks ago, and as we're coming into the second week following Easter, we're seeing the results of large gatherings that may have not been in compliance with those health orders," Dr. Betcher added.

Both health officials emphasized the need for Saskatchewan residents to be patient and continue to follow the public health orders.

"It's really important to follow those orders and understand that just because we're not seeing the effect of that today of today's actions, in two weeks time, we will," Dr. Betcher said.

According to the province, there are 190 people in hospital related to COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, including 44 people in intensive care, as of Friday.