Calgary maternity units give up beds as pandemic pressure grows

A Calgary doctor is worried about her patients as maternity units at city hospitals are forced to give up beds to help deal with COVID-19 pressures. But Alberta Health Services insists obstetrical care in the city is safe and there is plenty of room.

50 obstetrics beds at city hospitals can be used for non-maternity patients

Dr. Jennifer Brandon says the maternity unit at South Health Campus was full overnight Wednesday and seven of the 25 beds were being used for non-maternity patients. (Submitted by Dr. Jennifer Brandon)

A Calgary doctor is worried about her patients as maternity units at city hospitals are forced to give up beds to help deal with COVID-19 pressures. But Alberta Health Services insists obstetrical care in the city is safe and there is plenty of room.

AHS has identified 50 beds on Calgary maternity wards that can be used for general medical and surgical patients as hospitals work to make room for a growing surge of people needing treatment for COVID-19. The beds are not intended to treat patients with the coronavirus.

On Wednesday night, seven of the 25 maternity beds at the city's South Health Campus were filled with non-maternity patients.

"To lose seven beds means we are not able to provide care in a timely fashion for women who come in in labour," said Dr. Jennifer Brandon, a general practitioner who delivers babies at the hospital.

According to Brandon, the unit was completely full during her overnight shift on Wednesday.

"We can't deliver our patients on any other unit, on any other location in the hospital, with any other staff that is not specifically trained to manage labour and delivery. And it is scary."

Brandon says some moms and babies are being doubled up in rooms designed for just one pair — at the South Health Campus — and some are being sent home earlier than usual, placing a heavier load on services and supports in the community.

"We've seen increasing numbers of patients in clinic because they were sent home early — which did appear to be safe at the time — but are now needing closer followup when we otherwise would have been able to provide that on the unit," she said.

"We've had to rush things like breastfeeding support [and] safety — in terms of new moms seeing the services that they need in the morning, we've had to rush people home."

According to AHS, maternity beds are being repurposed for general medical and surgical patients as Calgary's adult hospitals shuffle beds to deal with an influx of COVID patients.

Maternity beds identified by AHS for surge capacity use:

  • Foothills Medical Centre — 17.
  • Peter Lougheed Centre — 13.
  • Rockyview General Hospital — 12 (4 in use as of 8 a.m. Thursday).
  • South Health Campus — 8 (7 in use as of 8 a.m. Thursday).
AHS says 8 of the 24 maternity beds at South Health Campus can be used for general medical and surgery patients as hospitals deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday at 8 a.m., seven beds were being used in that way. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Maternity patients could be redirected

Alberta Health Services insists there is plenty of room for labouring women in Calgary, and contingency plans are in place in cases where maternity units may fill up.

"AHS will not turn pregnant women away. We have other spaces identified should there ever be a need to expand beyond our traditional maternity units," a spokesperson said in statement emailed to CBC News.

AHS also said new moms will only be discharged when it is deemed medically safe to do so.

"I can't tell you in a week's time whether we'll be in viral Armageddon and there'll be no beds in the city. So we have to make some mitigations ahead of that which we know are safe," said Dr. Colin Birch, head of the department of obstetrics and gynecology for the Calgary zone. 

According to Birch, birth rates in Calgary have decreased in the past two years, leading to an increase in capacity on maternity wards.

"To date, there's not been a huge change in delivery of service of maternity in Calgary," he said.

Birch says plans are in place to redirect maternity patients between hospitals if one unit fills up — a practice that was done when birth rates were higher. But he says it has not been necessary yet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We shouldn't be deterring patients from coming to hospital to have their babies," Birch said.

"The service is safe. At this time, we have ample amounts of space to accommodate the patients globally across the city."

At the Foothills Medical Centre (where 17 maternity beds have been identified for potential repurposing) obstetrician Dr. Stephanie Cooper says they haven't had to give up beds yet, but they do have capacity if it becomes necessary.

"Even though we are all concerned about capacity and overload and stress on the system, we still know the hospital is a safe place and women should not be afraid to access care over concerns of hospitals and COVID," she said.

Meanwhile, back at the South Health Campus, Brandon says her patients are already being impacted and she's calling on AHS to reconsider its decision to reallocate the maternity beds at the southeast facility.

"Everybody is stretched to their limit," she said.

"You can't give up what we need to get patients managed urgently. And that's what's happening."


Jennifer Lee


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.


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