BARRIE, ONT. -- In the midst of what health officials call the third wave of COVID-19, hospitals report some of the highest numbers of ICU patients since the second wave's peak.

In Orillia, there is one COVID-positive patient being treated, yet seven of Soldiers' Memorial Hospital's eight ICU beds are in use.

The hospital's chief of staff says the more contagious variants have the potential to overwhelm the system. "It is going to be worse in the sense of the virus being more easily transmitted, causing more serious illness and affecting a younger age group in the population," Dr. Nancy Merrow says.

In Barrie, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre's (RVH) chief of staff, Dr. Jeff Tyberg, says there has been a spike in infected patients. "A couple of weeks ago, we had three and today we have 17 patients in the hospital that are COVID patients."

Tyberg says half the hospital's COVID patients are in the ICU. "Six of the patients in our intensive care unit are on ventilators, so they're quite sick."

GTA hospitals report patients battling variant strains of the virus are younger and more ill.

"We're hearing stories about patients coming into the emergency room, five patients, young patients under the age of 40," says Dr. Michael Lisi, chief of staff, Collingwood Marine and General Hospital.

RVH is serving as a regional hub to ease the burden on other hospitals with its 70-bed Pandemic Response Unit. The field hospital is equipped to free capacity across Simcoe Muskoka and south.

"We also have the ability to enlarge our capacity," Tyberg says. "Our intensive care unit can be increased up to 37 beds and beyond. We have 60 ventilators if we need it."

Currently, there are 35 COVID patients in local hospitals, with the youngest patient reportedly in their 20s.