Calgary

Alberta hospitals might buckle under the next COVID wave, doctors worry

Calgary appears to be on the leading edge of Alberta's latest COVID-19 wave, and there are concerns about how the province's already strained hospitals will be able to handle yet another surge.

Stampede gatherings may be contributing to Calgary's latest surge

As of July 18, there were 559 Albertans hospitalized with COVID-19, including 23 in ICU. The previous week, Alberta Health reported there were 552 people hospitalized, including 16 in intensive care. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Calgary appears to be on the leading edge of Alberta's latest COVID-19 wave, and there are concerns about how the province's already strained hospitals will be able to handle yet another surge.

Transmission is rising in Alberta, driven by the more transmissible BA.5 subvariant.

"The levels in Calgary have gone way up since the 13th of July," said Dr. Dan Gregson, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist with University of Calgary.

He's been watching Alberta's wastewater data closely and said the latest trend is clear.

This chart shows the two most recent COVID-19 waves in the Calgary wastewater readings with the uptick in COVID detected in recent weeks. There is a large wave at the end of 2021 with a second wave about half as high in the spring of 2022 that subsides into June. There is a strong uptick in recent readings but it hasn't yet reached the height of the previous two waves.
The Y axis denotes the number of SARS-CoV2 RNA particles detected in each sample. The numbers show the first number multiplied by 10 to the power of the small number above. For example 2.1 x 10¹⁵ written out in full is 2,100,000,000,000,000 or 2.1 quadrillion RNA particles detected. (Rob Easton/CBC)

"That's showing that we're having quite a bit of transmission in the community.… Not quite as much as the BA.2 wave, but we're getting there, and we'll see where that goes over the next few weeks," he said.

"It's possible that this current bump is related to our gatherings both at and around Stampede, and it may drop off or we may have a wave similar to what's gone on in Ontario and the U.K."

This chart shows the two most recent COVID-19 waves in the Edmonton wastewater readings. There are two large waves starting in late 2021, subsiding in the spring of 2022. There was a slight uptick in recent readings but still much lower than the previous two peaks and isn't conclusively heading upward in the most recent readings.
The Y axis denotes the number of SARS-CoV2 RNA particles detected per millilitre of wastewater. This chart should only be interpreted as a measure of progress against itself and not used to compare with other cities or measurement sites. (Rob Easton/CBC)

Positivity rates, for those eligible for PCR testing, are rising now throughout the province, with the most dramatic increase in the Calgary zone.

And Alberta's hospitalizations began ticking back up last week, too, for the first time since early May. 

"We're having — at least in terms of infection — a wave currently," said Gregson.

"The concern is when you look at jurisdictions like Ontario and the U.K. they didn't just have a wave of infections, they also had a wave of admissions."

Gregson predicts hospitalizations will keep going up in Alberta, with most people needing treatment such as oxygen support. But he expects the number of people requiring intensive care will likely be lower than during previous Omicron waves.

Emergency rooms facing 'perfect storm'

Frontline health-care workers, already exhausted after 2½ years of the pandemic, are starting to see early signs of this surge in Alberta's emergency rooms as more COVID-19 patients show up once again.

"This is the start. From talking to my colleagues in Ontario, we're probably a couple of weeks behind them," said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the emergency medicine section with the Alberta Medical Association.

"Our system is very, very stressed and overwhelmed already.… Adding more sick COVID patients is going to be a real challenge."

Dr. Paul Parks is president of the emergency medicine section with the Alberta Medical Association. He works at the Medicine Hat hospital. (Submitted by Paul Parks)

Parks said emergency rooms are already dealing with a "perfect storm," driven by staffing shortages and burnout, an increase in patient complexity due pandemic driven care delays, and an unusual surge of respiratory viruses this summer.

"Seeing those numbers go up now, it doesn't bode well for the coming months and early fall."

He's worried an influx of COVID patients this summer could further weaken an already struggling health-care system ahead of fall, when demand generally spikes in the ER.

"We can predict every year we get that, and if we have a big COVID wave on top of it, it will impact our ability to give safe and timely care. It will affect patients and Albertans, and some may even die because of capacity issues," he warned.

"We're very, very worried and concerned about that."

As Alberta's latest surge takes off, Dr. Noel Gibney believes now is the time to reconsider the idea of masking.

"There's no question that individuals, if they really want to take care and not become infected, that they should mask in crowded indoor areas [and] public transport," said Gibney, a professor emeritus of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta.

 And he wants the government to look at improving air quality and ventilation in public buildings.

Transmission is occurring at quite a high frequency right now in the community.- Dr. Dan Gregson, infectious disease specialist

"I think we do need a good discussion about how do we protect people who have to work indoors in public buildings, in schools and also, to a certain extent, hospitals," he said.

"We need to have a discussion publicly as to how can we improve the quality of air in our public places."

Meanwhile, Gregson is urging people to get a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine right away and roll up their sleeves for a third shot if they haven't already.

"Transmission is occurring at quite high frequency right now in the community. I don't think you want to spend a few days of your summer in the hospital and a few more days recovering at home," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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