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Increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alberta pushing ICUs to 90% capacity

Global News logo Global News 5 days ago Allison Bench
a man in a blue shirt: A health-care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit (ICU) at the General University Hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder says health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are susceptible to severe stress that could cause long-term psychological damage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Petr David Josek © The Canadian Press A health-care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit (ICU) at the General University Hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Centre of Excellence on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder says health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are susceptible to severe stress that could cause long-term psychological damage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Petr David Josek

According to Alberta Health Services, intensive care units in Calgary and Edmonton are quickly approaching current capacity limits as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise in the province.

In Calgary zone ICUs, as of numbers released Friday evening, total bed capacity in the zone is 90 per cent occupied.

In Edmonton zone, the total ICU bed capacity sits at 92 per cent occupied.

"These numbers fluctuate regularly," said a statement from James Wood with Alberta Health Services on Friday.

"At times, ICUs may operate at or above 100 per cent capacity, with additional supports available to be provided as necessary during those periods."

The hospitalization rate in Alberta has spiked over the last month. On Oct. 20, there were 116 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 16 of whom were in intensive care units. On Saturday, there were 320 Albertans in hospital, 56 of whom are in intensive care units.

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Read more: Hundreds of non-emergency surgeries in Edmonton postponed due to COVID-19

Heather Smith, the president of United Nurses of Alberta, said Friday that expanding the ICU capacity means more than just adding an extra bed.

"It's a very stressful and distressing time right across the health-care system," Smith said. "What [expanding ICUs] is going to mean, is increased concerns about patient safety, increased concerns about provider safety. There will be the need for redeployment because, of course, it's not just a matter of having a bed -- you have to have staff and hopefully you have skilled staff.

"There's a lot of moral distress in terms of people — providers — feeling that they have not provided the level of care for families and patients that they would like to provide because of understaffed situations."

Read more: ‘Our situation is grim’: Alberta breaks daily record for COVID-19 cases Friday, sees 11 new deaths

Wood added there are "robust contingency plans" for the ICUs as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province. He said the plan is to increase capacity in 10-bed increments in zones as the need arises.

"Increased capacity for ICU means expanding into existing spaces, including opening up unfunded spaces, and then converting other existing spaces into ICU spaces," he told Global News.

Edmonton and Calgary zones are both facing a surge of COVID-19, with Saturday's update showing 44 per cent of the 11,274 currently active provincial cases in Edmonton zone and 39 per cent in Calgary zone.

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On Friday, Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that while the province had initially reserved 70 ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, health officials have the ability to adjust that number and expand it.

"Throughout the pandemic response, I've indicated that 70 general ICU beds have been planned for patients who test positive for COVID-19," Hinshaw said. "Let me be clear, Alberta Health Services manages ICU beds and staff, depending on demand from both COVID-19 patients and patients that require intensive care. There are 173 general adult ICU beds for this purpose. These beds can be used for many patient types.

"I want to assure Albertans that as more COVID-19 patients require intensive care, AHS is able to add additional intensive care capacity."

Read more: COVID-19: What does Alberta’s hospital surge plan look like?

Smith said she believes it is time for the province to implement stronger measures against COVID-19 before staff for ICUs become stretched too thin.

"We do think that stronger restrictions are imperative for the safety of those in care, and for the safety of the population and the safety of our health-care providers," Smith said. 

"We really need to do what we can here in Alberta to try to minimize the impact on the health-care system so that individuals who need care can get the care they need."

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