Alberta asks federal government, Red Cross for field hospitals as COVID spreads

Alberta has asked Ottawa and the Red Cross to supply field hospitals to help offset the strain COVID-19 is having on the health-care system, according to a federal source with direct knowledge of the situation.

Province struggling with soaring COVID-19 cases, hospitals are overwhelmed

A health-care official walks down the halls of a pandemic response unit at Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary on Nov. 14. The temporary structure was set up early in the pandemic to deal with a potential flood of cases. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

As COVID-19 cases soar in Alberta and hospital capacity is stretched, the province has reached out to the federal government and the Canadian Red Cross for help, CBC News has learned.

A federal source with direct knowledge of the situation says Alberta has asked the federal government and the Red Cross to supply field hospitals to help offset the strain COVID-19 is having on the health-care system.

The source said Alberta would likely receive at least four field hospitals — two from the Red Cross and another two from the federal government. The source, speaking on condition of confidentiality, said there was no request for human resources to staff the hospitals and no request for support from the military. 

The source said a formal request has still not been sent by the province, but officials have been discussing in detail the level of support Alberta could receive. 

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is scheduled to speak with Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Wednesday to discuss the requests and what other supports Ottawa can offer the province during the pandemic. 

A provincial government official confirmed to CBC News that a request had been made for field hospital help, but said the request represented contingency planning only at this point.

The official said Alberta Health Services is gathering resources and materials it may need, but there is no plan yet to staff or construct the hospitals.

'Responsible planning'

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dismissed a suggestion that the requests indicated failure by the province to manage the pandemic effectively.

"No, I think it's a sign of responsible planning on our part for [a] potential extreme scenario," Kenney said at a news conference Wednesday.

With around 8,500 beds at 100 hospitals, Kenney said the province can likely dedicate 2,200 to 2,300 of those to COVID-19 patients. There are a little more than 500 patients in beds at this time.

"The reality is we have and can continue to create capacity as we expect, quite bluntly, the hospitalization numbers to go up, given the new cases in the last few weeks," Kenney said.

"But that demonstrates that we're not anywhere at the point of having to call on that kind of overflow capacity."

An official from Public Safety Canada said they have not received any requests for field hospitals from any other provinces or territories.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the requests for field hospital help represented 'responsible forward planning' should a potential extreme scenario emerge in the province. (Jason Kenney/Facebook)

Infection records

Alberta continues to set new COVID-19 infection records and leads the country in the number of active cases per capita. It has also sometimes led the country in total active cases. For example, on Tuesday, there were 16,628 active cases in Alberta, compared to 14,524 in Ontario — a province with more than three times as many people.

On Wednesday, the province reported 1,685 new cases. Alberta has reported more than 1,000 cases each day for nearly two weeks. 

There were 504 people in hospital and 97 in ICUs on Wednesday. A total of 561 people in the province have died from the disease since the start of the pandemic.

Edmonton NDP MLA and former Alberta health minister Sarah Hoffman said she was frustrated and angry about how the situation in the province had progressed.

"It's just so incredibly disappointing, when we knew this was coming. It's one of the reasons why we've been asking for modelling data, since September," Hoffman said. "It's beyond irresponsible."

Provincial restrictions

The last time Kenney appeared at a COVID-19 update was on Nov. 24 when he introduced new restrictions on social gatherings, among other measures, in an attempt to stem the rising tide of cases while continuing to focus on the province's economic health. 

The heightened restrictions, which were to remain in place for at least three weeks, included limiting indoor social gatherings to members of the same household, limiting outdoor gatherings to 10 people, stopping group activities like fitness classes and team sports, and moving all students in Grades 7-12 to online learning until the new year.

Kenney also announced that masks would become mostly mandatory in indoor workplaces in the two largest cities, although not in rural areas — but the municipal governments in Calgary and Edmonton had already imposed similar mandates.

He said those restrictions would be revisited on Dec. 15 and stricter measures could be imposed if cases continue to rise. 

However, critics called those measures insufficient, pointing out that restaurants, bars, casinos, gyms, many stores, places of worship and elementary schools remained open, albeit with restrictions.

Since then, doctors have warned of overburdened hospitals and ICUs and the province has taken the step of double-bunking some patients in ICU rooms as part of its plans to deal with a surge

On Nov. 27, Alberta Health Services sent a memo to staff asking them to conserve oxygen supplies as demand increases.

With files from Mathieu Gohier, Allison Dempster, Drew Anderson and Elise von Scheel