Calgary

Alberta hospitals could soon be as overwhelmed by COVID-19 as Ontario's, former top medical officer warns

The growing number of COVID-19 cases in the province could be leading Alberta toward a situation similar to hard-hit Ontario, if Alberta does not tighten restrictions, the former chief medical officer of health for Alberta said today.

Alberta Health Services says province prepared to handle increase in COVID hospitalizations

Medical staff in the ICU at the Humber River Hospital in Toronto turn a COVID-19 patient who is intubated and on a ventilator from his back to his stomach. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The growing number of COVID-19 cases in the province could be leading Alberta toward a situation similar to hard-hit Ontario if Alberta does not tighten restrictions, the former chief medical officer of health for Alberta said Monday.

Ontario hit three new pandemic highs for people in hospital, in ICU and needing a ventilator to breathe on Monday, as the province saw its sixth straight day of more than 4,000 new cases recorded.

Its government imposed strict new measures last week, including a mandatory stay-at-home-order, as overwhelmed hospitals started transferring patients to other cities.

Alberta could be in a similar boat within weeks, said Dr. James Talbot, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association COVID committee and adjunct professor at the school of public health at the University of Alberta.

It will continue to see cases double every nine to 11 days, and that will lead to hospitals being overwhelmed.

"The variant is in control of what's happening in the province right now," he told CBC News.

Talbot says four out of five zones in the province — the Calgary Zone, Central Zone, North Zone and South Zone — are experiencing more cases per day than they did at the peak of the second wave in December. The Edmonton zone is not in this group.

He predicts the number of cases will continue to double and that will lead to ICU capacity being exceeded.

As of Monday's provincial update, Alberta has 460 people in hospital with COVID-19, and 104 patients in intensive care.

"What you're seeing is the health-care system trying to adapt to an exponential growth," he said.

Province always able to meet demand: AHS

AHS said that currently in the province there is enough capacity for hospitalized and ICU patients.

Alberta Health Services wrote in a statement that the provincial health-care system "has always been able to meet demand during the pandemic, even when COVID-19 cases requiring hospital care hit their peak in late December."

Prior to the peak of the second wave, AHS located approximately 2,240 acute care beds and an additional 425 ICU beds for patients with COVID-19, said AHS.

"We did not come close to requiring that additional capacity — at the peak of the second wave, 906 Albertans who had tested positive for COVID-19 were in hospital, including 140 in ICU," said AHS.

COVID-19 in Ontario

Ontario is seeing pandemic highs in terms of people in hospitals with COVID-19, people being treated for COVID-related critical illnesses in intensive care units and people requiring a ventilator to breathe.

And hospitals in Hamilton are shifting workers around to staff more beds to counter the cases of COVID-19 filling their wards with patients.

Doctors have been prepared to use the triage protocols that determine which of the sickest patients there is capacity to save.

Talbot believes Alberta is not far off from that reality.

"We need the government at every level to recognize exactly how close to the Ontario path we are and that every day that's wasted between now and when we get to where Ontario is right now is the day that we're never going to get back," he said.

He says that if numbers do not start to trend downward, hard-hit hotspots like Calgary will need to eventually transfer patients who need ICU and ventilator access.

Talbot says that should numbers continue to rise, health-care workers in Alberta will have to consider the use of the triage protocol, as in Ontario, "unless something drastic happens to change the situation for the better."

Dr. James Talbot thinks the province should consider increasing provincial health restrictions.

AHS said in a statement that more beds could be opened as needed.

Although it is not being used for COVID-19 patients, the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary serves as an extension of the emergency department for the pandemic response unit.

In Edmonton, the Butterdome arena at the University of Alberta serves as the pandemic response unit, and would offer 100 inpatient spaces.

AHS said Monday that there is no need for these spaces to open. It said there has been no change to AHS's transfer policy.

With files from Helen Pike and Bobby Hristova

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