'This is the calm before the storm': How Calgary hospitals are preparing for COVID-19

Hospitals are stocking up on ventilators as emergency rooms expand into neighbouring departments in preparation for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients in Calgary.

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Dr. Neil Collins is handling the COVID-19 response for emergency rooms in the Calgary health zone. He says testing is available in other locations, such as the drive-thru testing facility pictured here, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to vulnerable patients in hospital. (Alberta Health Services)

Hospitals are stocking up on ventilators as emergency rooms expand into neighbouring departments in preparation for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients in Calgary, where the majority of confirmed cases in Alberta have been so far.

"This is the calm before the storm," said Dr. Neil Collins, who is handling the pandemic response for emergency departments in the Calgary health zone.

Traffic volumes at ERs in the city have been down slightly in the past week, he said, but there are "some early signals, maybe even in the last 24 hours, that things are starting to ramp up here."

"We've seen the arrival of a few patients with severe respiratory illness that is possibly related to the virus, and we're seeing increased volumes of patients who are coming in for testing who have concerns that they may have the virus," Collins said.

As of Tuesday, there were 97 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, with 70 of them in the Calgary health zone.

So far, everything has been manageable at emergency departments in the city. It's the coming days and weeks that have Collins worried.

'We need to prepare'

"We need to prepare for the large volumes of patients that we are expecting are going to come in with illness related to COVID-19, so what we've been doing is working on equipment, space and people to handle the surge of patients," he said.

That includes taking over spaces in hospitals adjacent to the emergency departments that were previously used for other purposes.

The goal is to be able to continue separating patients who may have the virus from other patients who are arriving with heart attacks, strokes, traumatic injuries and other medical needs.

To that end, some outpatient programs are being suspended and non-urgent surgeries put on hold.

"So there is space that's freeing up," Collins said.

"We hope to be able to accommodate at least the first parts in the increase in patient volumes."

More ventilators 'en route'

Collins said hospitals are also taking stock of their ventilators and strategically deploying them to where it is expected the devices will be most needed to help those suffering from the most critical symptoms of COVID-19 to breathe.

There are 477 critical-care ventilators for adults at sites across the province, according to Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan.

He said 70 of those have been added to the province's inventory in the past month and half to replace older ventilators, but the older ones will be retained in case they are needed to deal with the pandemic.

An additional 50 ventilators are "en route," McMillan said in an email.

On top of the adult ventilators, he said, there are also 78 critical-care ventilators for children available.

Canada's hospitals are counting their ventilators used to assist breathing in critically ill patients. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Collins said exactly how many COVID-19 patients the province will see remains a "big unknown" and they are preparing for multiple scenarios.

"We've watched what other countries have gone through, namely Italy and South Korea," he said. "We hope that our public health measures … will blunt the rise of that curve and we won't see so many patients, but we are planning for all contingencies."

When you should — and shouldn't — go to the ER

If you are concerned you might have COVID-19 and have only minimal symptoms, Collins asked that you don't come to the emergency department in search of a test. 

"We have a number of patients in the emergency departments and hospitals who would have a devastating course if they contract this illness," he said. "So it's very important, to the extent that we can, that we keep people with this virus out of the emergency departments."

There are testing facilities outside of emergency departments, he noted.

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Alberta Health Services has an online self-assessment tool that you can use to determine if you have symptoms of COVID-19 and need a test.

Unless your situation is critical and requires a call to 911, Albertans are advised to call Health Link at 811 before visiting a physician, hospital or other health-care facility.

"But if you have chest pain and shortness of breath and fever and extreme fatigue or weakness related to infection, then we should see you in the emergency department," Collins said.

Similarly, if you have other types of medical emergencies or serious injuries, don't hesitate to go to the ER.

"We're still open for business," Collins said. "We will take care of you."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Jennifer Lee


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