Calgary ICU doctors brace for wave of COVID-19 patients in coming weeks

Doctors working in Calgary's intensive care units say they are expecting a surge of very sick COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks — and many are feeling nervous.

Across Alberta, there are now 71 COVID-19 patients in intensive care

A health-care official walks down the halls of a pandemic response unit at Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary on Nov. 14, 2020. ICU doctors in Calgary are bracing themselves for the growing wave of COVID-19 patients expected in the coming weeks. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

Doctors working in Calgary's intensive care units say they are expecting a surge of very sick COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks — and many are feeling nervous.

Dr. Paul Boucher, an intensive care physician in Calgary and president of the Alberta Medical Association, says caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU is a challenge to begin with.

"They are quite sick. A lot of them do require life support," Boucher said. "Many end up in induced comas. Some develop organ failure."

For that reason, Boucher said it really requires a whole team to look after COVID-19 patients — and the virus has been pushing care teams to their limits.

Across Alberta, there are currently 355 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including 71 in intensive care. Twenty of Calgary's 66 ICU beds are now taken up with patients with the virus.

Health-care system 'overwhelmed'

Dr. Daniel Niven, an ICU physician and assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said the health-care system is rapidly heading toward being overwhelmed.

"You know, speaking to colleagues in Edmonton about this, they're already feeling that sense, because of the sheer volume that they're experiencing," Niven said.

"We will get there in Calgary. So I think we need everyone's help to try to slow this down, or people will lose loved ones."

According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), Calgary's overall ICU capacity peaked at 97 per cent on Tuesday, but at any given time a single ICU can be full or over capacity.

AHS said it can add another 425 ICU beds across Alberta by moving patients to other hospitals or care homes, using spaces such as operating rooms and postponing non-urgent surgeries.

"The beds are being allocated to ensure that there is sufficient capacity to meet pandemic health-care needs," AHS spokesperson James Wood said in an email.

"The opening of the new beds will be balanced with maintaining as much non COVID-related health-care services as possible, such as scheduled surgeries and ambulatory care clinics and procedures."

The weeks ahead

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday that the measures put in place earlier this week — or any future recommendations — would be made to minimize the chances of ever having to use the maximum number of beds.

"I would hope that we never have to utilize that volume of beds for COVID-19 patients," she said during a press conference.

"Because that would result in the stopping of not just the elective surgeries, but we might even have to move to even more urgent surgeries being postponed to get to that level of beds."

Health-care workers attend to a ICU COVID-19 patient at Peter Lougheed Centre on Nov. 14, 2020. (Submitted by AHS/Leah Hennel)

AHS also said it was working on ways to staff extra beds by redeploying people, increasing hours and looking to retired health-care workers, students and private companies for help.

Dr. Christopher Doig, the interim head of the department of critical care medicine at the University of Calgary, said Calgary hospitals are equipped to manage the load now — but critically ill patients require complicated care.

"There's not just physical fatigue, there's emotional fatigue," Doig said.

"What I can say is, we have relatively detailed plans on not just how we surge physical capacity, but how a surge in support would occur for COVID patients."

Alberta reached a tragic milestone on Wednesday, recording its 500th COVID-19 death, again breaking records for cases and hospitalizations.

With files from Jennifer Lee


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