Alberta delayed 10,000 surgeries during its 3rd wave of COVID-19, which pushed ICUs to the brink

About 10,000 surgeries were delayed during Alberta's third wave of COVID-19, which pushed the province's intensive care units to the brink of capacity this spring.

Delayed procedures add to backlog from last year that still hasn't been cleared

Health-care workers tend to an ICU COVID-19 patient at Calgary's Peter Lougheed Centre in this file photo. (Leah Hennel/Alberta Health Services)

About 10,000 more surgeries were delayed during Alberta's third wave of COVID-19, which pushed the province's intensive care units to the brink of capacity this spring.

The heavy demand on the system prompted Alberta Health Services to once again postpone non-urgent, scheduled surgeries — as it had during the first and second waves last year — in part because some patients who receive surgery require intensive care after their operations.

"By reducing the number of surgeries being performed, we are able to increase capacity in our ICUs, and ensure people with COVID-19 who need ICU care can receive it," AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email.

Alberta typically has 173 general, adult ICU beds, but the system's capacity was expanded during the pandemic.

The actual capacity varies on a day-to-day basis depending on a variety of factors, including the availability of trained staff, and has fluctuated between 200 and 270 for most of 2021. (These numbers don't include specialized intensive care units, such as those set up specifically for cardiac patients, burn victims or children.)

The majority of these general ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients, alone, at the height of the third wave in mid-May. 

At the same time, the number of non-COVID patients in ICU was greatly reduced, falling from about 120 in March down to about 40 in May.

"The main reason for this trend is the postponement of non-urgent, scheduled surgeries," Williamson said.

"With fewer surgeries proceeding in our hospitals, there are fewer post-surgery patients who may require ICU care."

The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU has been on the decline for several weeks, and surgeries are starting to pick up again.

"We are currently at 98 per cent of pre-COVID-19 surgical levels, and are performing more non-urgent scheduled surgeries as cases of COVID-19 fall," Williamson said.

Backlog persists from 2020

Roughly 25,000 surgeries were delayed in first and second waves of the pandemic last year, Williamson said.

All backlogged surgeries from the first wave have now been rebooked, Williamson said, but it will still take months for the health system to catch up.

He said AHS completed about 268,000 surgeries over the 12-month period that ended on March 31, which is about 92 per cent of what would be done a typical year, pre-pandemic.

In March, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the province would aim to complete an additional 55,000 surgeries — over and above its typical volume — by April 1, 2022, in order to address the backlog.

Shandro said at the time that the province would devote $1.25 billion from its COVID-19 contingency fund toward this goal, along with $120 million from the Alberta Surgical Initiative — a plan announced in December to perform more publicly funded procedures at private, for-profit facilities.


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