Alberta Health Services looking out of province for ICU beds, staff

Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu confirms that the health-care provider is looking for additional support from outside Alberta as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

Number of COVID patients in intensive care up by 29 per cent in past week

Doctors and nurses say Alberta's hospitals are still under pressure after five other waves of the pandemic. (Leah Hennel/Alberta Health Services)

The province is now looking outside of its borders for additional ICU beds and staff to help treat the surging number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta.

During a news conference Wednesday evening, Alberta Health Services president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said there were few options left on the table.

"We are facing our greatest challenge as a provincial health-care organization at a time when most of us had hoped that this pandemic would be close to over," Yiu said. 

Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu addresses concerns and plans to mitigate the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta hospitals. (Government of Alberta)

Across Alberta there were 270 patients in intensive care Tuesday — the highest number ever, Yiu said. She added that capacity was at 88 per cent full. 

"That is taking into account the additional 132 surge spaces that we have opened to meet demand. Without those spaces, we would be at 156 per cent of our normal capacity," she said.

"There would not be enough ICU beds for those that need them."

Yiu said AHS will ask if if other provinces may be able to take ICU patients who need care, or spare staff that can work in intensive care units. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health in Saskatchewan said "at this time, Saskatchewan does not have capacity to receive additional ICU patients from out of province." 

Ontario is considering Alberta's request, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday.

"Our officials are currently looking into what support we might be able to offer Alberta," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

A spokesperson for Manitoba's health ministry told CBC News "questions relating to Alberta's health-care system are best directed to Alberta Health Services."

British Columbia and Ontario have not responded to a request for comment from CBC News.

'Very, very concerning'

A provincial group of doctors who have banded together to provide updates on the surging numbers in Alberta also reacted to the news of additional restrictions and the fact that AHS is looking to other provinces for help. 

Dr. Neeja Bakshi during a Protect our Province update addressing the rise in COVID-19 cases in Alberta that are overwhelming ICUs around Alberta. (Protect our Province/Youtube)

"We are in positions that none of us have ever been in before," said Dr. Neeja Bakshi with Protect Our Province. 

Bakshi called the new measures confusing and thinks they may be be too late.

"I fear that the next few weeks in Alberta are going to still be very, very concerning and we are going to see needless suffering and deaths due to the lack of action."

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said ICU levels around the province vary. The North health zone is currently operating at 108 per cent capacity, while the South zone is at 100 per cent. Other zones are currently between 80 and 90 per cent full.

Triage protocols

Yiu confirmed that AHS is preparing to implement its triage protocols, though they are not yet being implemented. They are a last resort, she said.

"We are doing this because the number of patients needing ICU care continues to rise rapidly … the number of COVID patients in ICU increased by 29 per cent in the past seven days alone," she said. 

Yiu described the triage protocols as a planned and predetermined province-wide approach to guide response should demand for care surpass the amount of available resource, including beds and ventilators.

With files from Janet French and Brooks Decillia