Calgary

Alberta's strained hospitals could struggle with a 6th wave, health-care workers warn

Alberta health-care workers are bracing for yet another wave of COVID-19, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, and they're worried hospitals, which never recovered after previous surges, will be unable to cope.

Physicians say they're again seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients in hospital

Doctors and nurses say Alberta's hospitals are still under pressure after five previous waves of the pandemic. (Leah Hennel/Alberta Health Services)

Alberta health-care workers are bracing for yet another wave of COVID-19, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, and they're worried hospitals, which never fully recovered after previous surges, will be unable cope.

New cases, positivity rates, new hospitalization rates are all increasing five weeks after the Alberta government eliminated the vast majority of public health measures. Meanwhile, levels of the virus in wastewater have risen in some communities — an early indicator of a rise in cases.

The latest available weekly data shows new case counts, based on the province's very limited PCR testing, increased 27 per cent between the reporting period of March 15-21 and March 22-28.

"All of us have our breath held and our fingers crossed," said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the emergency medicine section with the Alberta Medical Association and an ER physician in Medicine Hat.

Parks said more and more patients are showing up in the ER with COVID, and there is trepidation on the front lines.

"Our staffing levels are as low as they've ever been. Everybody's depleted … and tired, and we haven't had that little bit of a break to catch our wind before another wave hits us," he said.

The problem is, hospitals are still catching up on a backlog of delayed surgeries. Patients who haven't had health problems addressed are now sicker, and the number of COVID patients in hospital remained high even as the fifth wave subsided.

The latest provincial data showed there were 964 patients in hospital with COVID-19, including 47 in intensive care, as of March 28. 

"By the time we see the hospitals overflowing … it may be too late to even mitigate that wave anyway," he said, warning it may be difficult to recognize the severity of a surge with Alberta's dramatically scaled back surveillance and reporting.

"That's a fear." 

Dr. Neeja Bakshi, an Edmonton internal medicine specialist, says patient care is already suffering. And she's concerned hospitals don't have the capacity to scale up if demand soars. (CBC)

Patient care suffering, doctors say

"It is terrible," said Dr. Neeja Bakshi, an internal medicine physician at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital.

According to Bakshi, her unit has gone from having three or four admissions a week, two weeks ago, to seven or eight a day now, and there is talk of opening yet another COVID-19 unit at her facility, which is still operating at 120 to 130 per cent capacity.

"Things are really, really bad in hospital. They were not good already, and now we're just going to see this surge," she warned.

"If your loved one needs health care, the chances of them getting effective and efficient health care in a timely manner is very slim right now."

The Red Deer Regional Hospital, which  has been plagued by bed shortages for years and is slated for a major expansion, is also struggling.

Emergency physician Dr. Mike Weldon says staffing levels are low due to burnout and attrition. And he, too, is starting to see an increase in COVID-19 patients again.

"Ten to 15 per cent of my patients, at least, have COVID or a complication," he said.

"Our hospital has an outbreak right now that has closed one unit. So we have COVID patients that we have to look after. We have a unit that's closed, on top of a hospital that's operating at 100 per cent plus capacity for years before the pandemic. So we remain extremely vulnerable and care is compromised."

Dr. Mike Weldon, a Red Deer ER physician, says at least 10 to 15 per cent of the patients he is seeing now have COVID or a related complication. (Submitted by Dr. Mike Weldon)

Nurses bracing themselves, too

Danielle Larivee, first vice-president with the United Nurses of Alberta and the NDP candidate for Lesser Slave Lake, said nurses are exhausted and worried about having to go through yet another surge.

"It's really not sustainable. There needs to be a recognition and an acknowledgement of what people are capable of as human beings," she said.

"And we need to look at how we structure things and how we're utilizing staff to meet needs. And once again, look at what programs and services are essential and what can wait, which is unfortunate for those who are waiting for those services.

The union continues to call for a return to widespread access to PCR testing and other measures, including a provincial mask mandate.

Parks says patients with three doses of the vaccine generally have mild enough illness that they don't need to be hospitalized. And he's urging Albertans to do what they can to keep the virus at bay.

"The pandemic's not done with us.… It's definitely not over," he said.

"Be cautious.… Don't take it for granted, and if people can be vaccinated, that will make a massive difference for our system."

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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