Alberta COVID-19 hospitalizations will peak in late May, province says

Alberta's supply of ventilators, intensive care beds and personal protective equipment should be sufficient to handle a projected peak next month in COVID-19 cases, according to modelling information released Wednesday.

Modelling shows expected need for ICU beds, ventilators in fight against pandemic

Premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw will release more details Wednesday about the province's modelling data for COVID-19. (CBC)

Alberta's supply of ventilators, intensive care beds and personal protective equipment should be sufficient to handle a projected peak next month in COVID-19 cases, according to modelling information released Wednesday.

Under the most likely scenario, first revealed by Premier Jason Kenney in a televised address on Tuesday, Alberta would see as many as 800,000 confirmed and suspected infections and between 400 to 3,100 deaths by the end of the summer.

The peak in cases is projected to occur in the middle of May.

Under that scenario, the peak of hospitalization would be in late May, with about 818 Albertans requiring hospitalization. About 232 patients would be expected to require critical care by late May and early June.

"Modelling is an estimate based on the best known data at the time that the model is put together," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

"But we will continue to adjust it based on emerging Alberta data and evidence. So you will ... see this model evolving over time."

Albertans can help bring the numbers down further by following public health rules aimed at preventing spread of the virus, she added. 

"Changing our total infections in the province is in our hands," Hinshaw said. "Every action makes a difference." 

The province updated its COVID-19 case numbers before the start of the news conference.

Alberta reported 50 new cases Wednesday, bringing the provincial total to 1,423. Three more deaths were reported, bringing the total so far to 29. There have been 519 recoveries.

Ramping up health-system response

As a precaution, Alberta is ramping up its ICU, ventilator and personal protective equipment capacity based on an elevated, but less likely scenario. 

Under the elevated scenario, 1,570 Albertans would require hospital beds by the beginning of May, with 392 of those cases requiring intensive care. 

The elevated model would see as many as one million infections and between 500 and 6,600 deaths.

System couldn't handle 'extreme' scenario

An extreme model, with 1.6 million infections and 16,000 to 32,000 total deaths was provided to show how the virus would have spread if Alberta had not taken mitigation measures like closing businesses, schools and public buildings, and encouraging people to stay home.

Alberta's health system would not be able to handle this scenario. 

The information released on Wednesday outlines the assumptions used by health officials to come up with their models. 

The most likely scenario includes an assumption that each person with COVID-19 will infect one to two other people. Other assumptions include that not all cases will be detected, that there is no asymptomatic transmission, and that patients are infectious for 5 to 10 days. 

For the purposes of health system planning, the scenarios assume all ICU patients will need the use of a ventilator and that generally, 14 per cent of people with COVID-19 will need to be hospitalized, with five per cent needing time in intensive care. 

Unlike other jurisdictions that have used data from other places to project the spread of the virus, Alberta is using data gathered through its own testing and surveillance. Officials say the models are fluid and will change as new information comes in.

More ICU beds ready by late April

Alberta plans to have an additional 1,081 ICU beds ready by the end of April, and another 447 ventilators, bringing the total number of ventilators set aside for COVID-19 patients from 314 to 761.

The additional ventilators are coming from a number of sources, including the respiratory therapy programs at NAIT and SAIT, STARS air ambulance, private surgical facilities and the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

Transport, anaesthetic and pediatric devices that can be used for mechanical ventilation account for another 305 units; another 65 are new purchases by the province. 

The stock of personal protective equipment is more than sufficient through to the end of April and into May. Alberta Health Services is showing shortages for the month of June, but officials say that doesn't account for the orders expected to be filled by then. 

The province is adding an additional 315 acute care beds by the end of April by measures which include postponing non-urgent procedures.

Alberta Health Services intends to increase staffing in the ICU by ramping up training for nurses, hiring recently retired health care workers, and moving nurse graduates through their practicums so they can start working.

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the government should be planning for a worst-case scenario and she repeated her call for the government to take over staffing of seniors' homes, and prevent employees from working at more than one site. 

Notley is also concerned of reports from health-care workers that they are being encouraged to wash and reuse their N95 masks. 

"There's a shortage, we need to start being honest about that," she said. 

While AHS believes it has enough supply of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said they also have to be careful.

Yiu said the Public Health Agency of Canada has recommendations for sterilization and reuse of N95 masks. 

Kenney has asked AHS to "go as big as they can" in procuring supplies. He said Alberta is prepared to share with other provinces if they get more PPE than required. 

'I hope the models are wrong'

In an address to Albertans on Tuesday evening, Kenney outlined two possible scenarios for the pandemic in Alberta.

Under the "probable" scenario, Alberta would hit the peak of infections in mid-May. From the beginning of the outbreak to the end of summer the province could see up to 800,000 total infections, and between 400 and 3,100 deaths.

Under a more serious but less likely "elevated" scenario, infections in Alberta would peak at the beginning of May, with as many as one million total infections and between 500 and 6,600 deaths.

In his widely watched Tuesday address, Kenney said public health orders designed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus may have to stay in place until the end of May.

"As hard as this will be, it is the only ethical choice when thousands of lives are still at stake," Kenney said.

"To be honest, I hope the models are wrong."


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.