Red Deer hospital ICU overflows as it faces wave of patients with COVID-19

Doctors in Red Deer say their hospital is under tremendous strain as it faces a wave of very sick COVID-19 patients.

Unit normally has 12 beds but is treating 17 seriously ill patients

Red Deer Regional Hospital has faced an influx of COVID-19 patients in recent weeks. The ICU and emergency room are both overcapacity, the hospital is battling a number of outbreaks and some scheduled surgeries are being cancelled (Red Deer Regional Health Foundation)

Doctors in Red Deer say their hospital is under tremendous strain as it faces a wave of very sick COVID-19 patients.

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre serves close to half a million people in central Alberta and it is the only hospital in the region equipped to treat COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care.

According to Alberta Health Services, 38 people with COVID-19 had been admitted to the facility as of Thursday morning, including 17 in the ICU.

"We really have never seen patient volumes like this," said Dr. Kym Jim, internal medicine specialist at Red Deer Regional Hospital. "Our intensive care has now overflowed into coronary care, which means patients in coronary care are now being managed in other areas of the hospital."

The hospital's ICU is equipped with 12 beds. With the expansion into the cardiac care unit, six surge beds have been added for a total of 18 beds —17 of which are filled by COVID-19 patients.

In addition, there are a number of other patients requiring intensive care for other reasons.

"This puts tremendous strain on the system — tremendous strain on staff. We just have never seen this number of ventilated patients at our hospital," said Jim.

Dr. Kym Jim says the Red Deer Regional Hospital has never had to deal with as many ICU patients as it is currently seeing. (Jennifer Lee/CBC News)

Some ICU patients doubled up

Red Deer Regional Hospital has been struggling with a shortage of beds for years, and, according to intensive care specialist Dr. Luc Benoit, the ICU was already operating at capacity before the pandemic hit.

"That's part of the challenge we're having now that we're seeing this increase in demand from COVID. We were already close to full with the normal things," he said.

In addition to taking over the cardiac unit, some patients in the ICU are being double bunked to accommodate the influx.

"We have several rooms with two patients in them — whereas there normally would only be one. But there is enough oxygen connections … and enough room to fit in the equipment for two people, although it's a bit crowded," said Benoit.

Despite the pressures, Benoit says patients are getting the care they need and he's urging people to come to the hospital if they need medical attention.

"Right now … if someone needed the hospital, we could look after them with or without COVID."

Four units on outbreak

The hospital is also battling a number of COVID-19 outbreaks.

As of Wednesday afternoon, four units at the Red Deer Regional Hospital had outbreaks declared and three more were under watch status.

All this is leading to backups in the emergency room, which is now overflowing into the hospital's outpatient unit.

And according to Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, a Red Deer orthopdedic surgeon, some surgeries are now being postponed.

"Certainly for the non-cancer scheduled surgeries, we're starting to now have to cancel patients, and that's because we just don't have anywhere to put them afterwards. Our beds are full of COVID patients."

Dr. Keith Wolstenholme, an orthopedic surgeon, says some scheduled, non-cancer surgeries are now being cancelled because there simply aren't enough beds at the Red Deer Hospital. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Alberta Health Services says it's working to ensure the hospital has enough capacity, including beds, equipment and staff, for patients who need the specialized care provided there.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, an AHS spokesperson said temporary measures are in place to mitigate the pressures caused by the outbreaks and the influx of COVID-19 admissions.

"This includes working with rural sites across the central zone to transfer patients who don't require the specialized care [the hospital] provides. We have also been working diligently to discharge patients who can safely return home with home care or family supports in place, or to transfer such patients to other sites within the zone while they wait for placement in continuing care," the statement said.

In addition to the six beds that have been opened up already in the coronary care unit, AHS has plans to add another 27 ICU beds — equipped with ventilators — if necessary.

AHS also says that while ER patients are staying in overflow beds in medical specialty units while they wait to be admitted, those services are not affected because they are currently providing care virtually.

"The site continues to see a steady number of patients presenting to the emergency department (ED) as part of the overall demands at the site during the pandemic. While there has been a slight decrease in overall patient volumes in the department, those presenting are high acuity," the statement said.

My ask is that people don't let their guard down … because we're kind of drowning on the front line here.- Dr. Keith Wolstenholme

Meanwhile, doctors in Red Deer warn COVID-19 is still a threat that needs to be taken seriously.

"COVID activity is present in central Alberta and … people need to be aware of the effects it's having on the hospital," Jim said.

And the physicians are calling on people in central Alberta to be vigilant.

"I think there's been a bit of a feeling with the vaccine starting to slowly roll out that maybe we're out of the woods. But certainly in the hospital that is not the case," said Wolstenholme.

"My ask is that people don't let their guard down — that people continue to wear their masks and follow the distancing rules and [all of the] rules and laws that have been put in place — because we're kind of drowning on the front line here."


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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