Health-care workers brace for tougher times as Alberta ICUs fill up

Alberta's ICUs are straining under the pressure of ballooning COVID-19 cases, and health-care workers are bracing for some tough weeks ahead.

Beds added across province to cope with 4th wave, but finding workers is challenging

Dr. Sean van Diepen, an Edmonton critical care specialist, says the delta-driven surge in COVID-19 cases is having a serious impact on ICU capacity and causing staff burnout. (Submitted by Dr. Sean van Diepen)

Alberta's ICUs are straining under the pressure of ballooning COVID-19 cases, and health-care workers are bracing for some tough weeks ahead.

There are now 137 COVID patients in intensive care across the province, an increase of 30 per cent over the last week.

At the height of the third wave there were 182 in ICU.

Dr. Daniel Niven says the number of COVID patients coming into his Calgary ICU is growing rapidly — more so than in the spring. 

The vast majority are unvaccinated, he said.

"At some point, we may need to step outside of the ICU footprint here to other areas where critically ill patients can be looked after," said Niven. 

"And I don't know what that looks like over the next couple of weeks, but I do worry that we may surge to levels that we did not see in wave three."

Double bunking

Niven said they are already double-bunking patients to cope with demand and thinks they will see a concerning rate of growth over the next couple of weeks. 

"I would hope that at some point we're going to see the crest of this, but I'm not sure when that's going to be," he said.

Alberta Health Services says it has added 82 ICU beds across the province, bringing the total to 255. With those additional beds, the capacity is sitting at 87 per cent, down from 95 per cent last week before the additions. 

The Calgary zone is at 89 per cent of capacity, while the Edmonton zone is at 84 per cent.

Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for AHS, says they have the ability to open additional beds, but finding staff for those beds is "challenging right now."

When asked how many doctors and nurses have been redeployed to ICUs in order to care for COVID patients, Williamson said he did not have that information. 

Dr. Sean van Diepen, a critical care specialist in Edmonton, says staff is feeling the weight of the workload.

"There's such a high level of burnout and competent experienced nurses that have taken time off or have left the profession altogether, that we're really having trouble finding people to care for these patients," he said. 

The impact

It's not just the sheer number of patients that is having an impact.

Van Diepen says patients are getting sicker, faster, but also staying in intensive care for longer.

"I'm seeing people in their 20s and 30s and they're a lot healthier coming in and they're able to withstand a lot more," he said. 

"So in some of these cases, patients are being cared for for weeks. I have one patient … that we're going on three and a half months still in the ICU."

He says the strains on the ICUs are spilling over into the rest of the system. Nurses being pulled into the ward. Procedures, surgeries and diagnostics for other afflictions being delayed. 

"I don't know if people really understand what the implications are of stressing the ICU system," he said.

"This puts people's lives at risk for other reasons as well."

Both van Diepen and Niven say more public health measures — including a vaccine passport — need to be considered in order to alleviate pressure on the health-care system. 

With files from Jennifer Lee


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