The Alberta Government announced that starting on Jan. 24, already existing beds at Calgary’s South Health Campus’s Pandemic Response Unit will be opened for patients’ use.
The South Health Campus’ PRU was established earlier in the pandemic in preparation for the pressures on the health care system due to Covid infections.
“In the past week we have seen hospitalization numbers increase sharply provincially—the number of patients with Covid who require hospital care has increased by about 40 per cent,” said Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO of Alberta Health Services.
An initial 12 beds will be opened, with plans for an additional 12 to follow.
“We will only use these beds if we have to, and going forward additional beds will be opened as needed and staff availability allows,” said Dr. Yiu.
In September of last year, five PRU beds were opened for use for day medicine patients as a way to free up beds within the hospital for Covid patients.
Pressures on health care system increasing
Alberta surpassed the highest level of total hospitalizations seen during previous waves this week. A total of 1,141 concurrent hospitalizations were reported by the government's Covid-19 statistics website on Tuesday.
The province reported that there were 1,131 total patients in hospital yesterday, with 108 of those patients in the ICU.
"Our internal early warning system tool shows that we can expect hospitalization numbers to keep increasing for a while yet," said Dr. Yiu.
Premier Jason Kenney said that an early positive sign that the current Omicron wave may have peaked was the decline in Covid-19 found in wastewater in 14 of 19 communities tested throughout the province. The Premier asked for caution however, noting the lag time between infections and hospitalizations among patients.
"We do know of course there will be a lag between the peak in infections and the peak and hospitalizations, probably something in the range of a two week lag," he said.
Dr. Yiu said that Alberta Health Services has been seeing increased volumes of patients in the past week. ICU patient counts have increased by 18 per cent. EMS and emergency department teams have faced increases of 30 per cent.
She said that calls to Alberta Health Link were up 300 per cent compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
"It's important for people to know that while our system is definitely stressed, we continue to provide a high level of care to anyone who needs it," she said.
Health care workers sick
Alberta Health Services has been facing between 18 to 20 per cent of shifts being missed due to health care workers being sick, or having sick family members.
She said that AHS generally runs at around 15 per cent of shifts missed.
Additionally, five per cent of staff, or approximately 5,500 workers have been sick at any one time. The province's Covid-19 statistics indicates that there are currently 5,705 active cases of Covid-19 among health care workers.
"This is having an impact on our ability to fully staff our units and wards," said Dr. Yiu.
"And although these numbers provide only a snapshot in time, this is why we have been putting additional efforts into bringing on additional staff as well as increasing staff redeployment," she said.
Alternative model of care
The province has also implemented an alternative model of care.
"This means instead of having individual health care providers, caring for a smaller number of patients, a team that together has a complete skill set and relevant experience collectively cares for a group of patients in this very challenging time," said Dr. Yiu.
She said patient safety guides the staffing models. Albertans using the health system may be encountering more students than usual.
"They're supervised, but may doing important support tasks in order to enable more senior members of the care team to focus on other clinical needs," she said.
The Premier said that 600 nursing students have joined AHS team. Kenney said that this was to maximize the availability of the workforce to support patient care.
Last week AHS was able to complete 99 per cent of normal surgical volumes. Postponements this week have brought that number down to 90 per cent.
"We are doing all that we can do to complete as many surgeries and procedures as possible. But we have had to start postponing a small number of surgeries as we did in previous waves," said Dr. Yiu.
"To those are in sort of have surgeries or procedures postponed: I'm so sorry, and I understand how difficult it has been for you and your loved ones," she said.
Postponements of surgeries began yesterday in the Calgary Health Zone and the Edmonton Health Zone.
The province has said they will continue to prioritize urgent surgeries, as well as pediatric and cancer surgeries.
"We do not take the decision to reduce surgeries and procedures lightly and are well aware of the health implications that any deleted treatment can cause," said Dr. Yiu.
Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care doctor in Edmonton, posted to Twitter that "after 2 years of constant rescheduling, many of these surgeries will be palliative," in response to surgical delays. Other Twitter users expressed their own concerns about being able to access cancer surgeries in the coming days.
Dr. Yiu also indicated that it may once again become necessary to transfer patients to other facilities. This was required during the fourth wave. She said current pressures, may make it difficult to accommodate patient or family preferences for these transfers.