Kenney cautiously optimistic about Omicron peak as Alberta hospitalizations continue to rise

“If the variant performs in Alberta like it has in jurisdictions all around the world, we can reasonably expect that we may now be beginning on the downslope of transmission,” Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday.

More people in hospital with COVID-19 than at any previous time in pandemic

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, and Health Minister Jason Copping updated COVID-19 Thursday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press; Government of Alberta)

Alberta may have seen the peak of the Omicron variant in the province, though hospitals are likely two weeks away from seeing the worst, Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday.

"If the [Omicron] variant performs in Alberta like it has in jurisdictions all around the world, we can reasonably expect that we may now be beginning on the down-slope of transmission," Kenney told a news conference.

Kenney pointed to wastewater analysis results as an early indication the province has surpassed the peak of Omicron infections.

Cases of COVID-19 are declining in 15 of 19 communities where wastewater is analyzed, he said, with significant declines in Calgary and Edmonton.

He also pointed to Alberta's test positivity rate — now at around 33 per cent, down from a fifth-wave high of 41 per cent — as further evidence.

Still, he warned, hospitalization numbers often trail case numbers by two weeks, so the worst is yet to come for Alberta hospitals.

"I think we can reasonably expect to see 1,500 or more COVID patients in non-ICU beds when we reach the hospitalization peak a little later in January," he said.

"All of that will add significant pressure to the health-care system."

As of Thursday's update, 1,131 people were in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19, passing the fourth wave peak of 1,128 reported on Sept. 27, 2021. There are 108 patients in intensive care.

Kenney was joined at Thursday's news conference by Health Minister Jason Copping, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, and Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu.

Increasing pressure on hospitals

Yiu said the health-care system is under tremendous pressure.

"The speed at which Omicron is spreading through Alberta and around the world is concerning," she said.

"In the past week we have seen hospitalization numbers increase sharply. This week we reached numbers of total hospitalizations with COVID that [are] higher than at any point during the pandemic.

"We are seeings signs that our ICU teams can expect to see more patients needing their care in the coming weeks."

Watch | AHS preparing as hospitalizations rise:

COVID-19 hospitalizations increase sharply in Alberta

4 months ago
Duration 2:14
Dr. Verna Yiu, president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, says the province is again facing significant and increasing pressure on the health-care system due to speed at which Omicron is spreading.

Over the last seven days the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU has increased by about 18 per cent, Yiu said.

EMS and emergency department teams are facing volume increases as much as 30 per cent, while calls to Health Link are up by more than 300 per cent compared to pre-pandemic times.

Beds opening in pandemic response units

The province announced Thursday it is expanding bed capacity for Omicron patients.

"Our internal early warning system tool shows that we can expect hospitalization numbers to keep increasing for a while yet," Yiu said.

"And while these patients may not require the complex ICU care, it is still really important to remember that for most people, being in a hospital is a challenging, a difficult and emotional experience.

"While we still have capacity with our existing beds, we are now working hard to increase that capacity even further."

Existing beds are being allocated for COVID-19 care and additional beds are being opened in some locations as needed.

Starting Monday or sooner, if required, some beds in pandemic response units will be opened at the Kaye Edmonton Clinic in Edmonton and South Health Campus in Calgary.

The Kaye Clinic will open 18 beds in the coming week, with plans for another 18. South Health Campus will open 12 beds initially, with plans to open another 12, Yiu said.

Yiu said health workers are exhausted.

"Many of them are off sick or isolating themselves or at home, caring for their loved ones who are also sick," she said.

Currently about five per cent of AHS staff across the province are sick at any one time, which equates to about 5,500 people, she said.

"This is having an impact on our ability to fully staff our units and wards, and we know that if given any one day, that about 18 to 20 per cent of shifts are being missed due to staff calling in sick or having to cancel due to other challenges such as sick family members.

"That is very, very high for us."

'Pushed us over the edge'

Patient care is suffering amid the fifth wave, said Dr. Aisha Mirza, who works in the emergency department at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton.

"It has just sort of pushed us over the edge," Mirza said in an interview Thursday. "We're all trying to do more with less." 

The emergency department is packed every day and burnout on the front lines is triggering an exodus of veteran health-care workers, just as rising Omicron infections leave more staff sidelined, she said.

Patients are often being shuffled from room to room, being assessed in hallways, being sent home from hospital too early or being left to wait too long for much-needed surgery, she said.

Patients with a broken bone may now have to wait two to three days for emergency surgery, instead of a few hours, she said. 

"It's really sad to see a patient suffering like that."

After more than two years on the front lines of pandemic health care, Mirza said her work now feels daunting and relentless. The slipping standard of care has caused "moral distress" across the front lines, she said. 

"We can almost predict that there's going to be bad outcomes if we continue on this path," she said. 

"And that kind of stress, it's the stress that comes with the knowledge of knowing the something bad is happening and no one's willing to listen to you." 


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