Calgary

Hospitals prep for 3rd wave of COVID-19 due to rise in variant numbers

Hospitals in Alberta are preparing for a third wave of COVID-19 driven by the more aggressive variant.

Doctor says teams are planning how to isolate those with variants

Hospitals in Alberta are starting to prepare for a third wave as coronavirus case numbers, including variant cases, continue to rise across the province. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Hospitals in Alberta are preparing for a third wave of the pandemic, driven by more aggressive variants of the coronavirus.

The province reported 195 new cases on Tuesday of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus first reported last year in the United Kingdom. Alberta has now confirmed 1,886 cases of that variant.

On Monday, the province said the rise of variants as well as hospitalizations for COVID-19 have put off any plans for the province to move to Step 3 of its reopening plan.

"Today, while hospitalizations are indeed below 300, they've risen in recent days. The decline that we saw in January and early February has stopped," said health minister Tyler Shandro at a press conference Monday.

Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician and nephrologist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, wrote in a tweet on Tuesday that they have reopened the COVID-19 wards at their hospital.

"The ICU is preparing its surge plan again. Infection control is redesigning isolation protocols because of the variants. My apologies to restaurants and bars, but we knew this was coming," Markland wrote.

Markland told CBC News that he's feeling the exact same way as he did in early November when the second wave was predicted.

"The intensive care unit is calling on all of our previous staff who we recently released to be prepared to come back as we look to expand into the recovery rooms for barrack style management of people on ventilators and high-flow oxygen," he said.

The physician added that the uptick in variants of concern adds another layer of stress to the healthcare system.

Dr. Darren Markland says at the Royal Alexandra Hospital they're working to ensure all extra staff brought in during the second wave are prepared to come back as ICUs fill up. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"Infection control is already stringing together plans to be able to house [variants of concern] patients independently because there is the possibility that variants can reinfect people who originally had COVID," he said.

Markland said they will have to find extra rooms, which often don't exist, for those who have the variant.

"Once people start hitting the hospitals and we start increasing the density of patients who have this virus in an enclosed space, then we'll start to see a higher chance of in-hospital spread and outbreaks and lockdowns," he said.

"Those can paralyze the system very quickly."

AHS responds

Alberta Health Services told CBC News in an emailed statement that its ongoing pandemic planning will utilize COVID-19 specific units as hospitalizations rise.

"While hospitalizations remain significantly less than what we saw in December and January, cases in hospital (including variant strains) are increasing and AHS is responding to that trend," wrote a spokesperson.

AHS added it's watching case numbers closely and can open and close COVID-19 units and increase ICU capacity as needed.

Dr. Misty Watson, a physician and hospitalist at the Rocky View General Hospital in Calgary, said she works with the majority of COVID patients on the inpatient unit. 

She said she suspects that cases will continue to increase among young people. 

"We know everybody's tired, they're tired of not seeing their friends. They're tired of not playing sports … and because of that, it's going to continue to rise," she said.

She said that despite seeing an increase in cases, it's still not at the same rate as they saw in November, and that it is likely due to seniors being protected by the vaccine.

However, she added that this doesn't mean that young people won't be impacted by COVID-19.

"There are a lot of young people that have health conditions that haven't been vaccinated, that are at risk, that are staying at home and aren't able to do anything," she said.

"And I think we owe it to those people to continue to protect them."

With files from Jen Lee

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