Edmonton·Exclusive

Edmonton's Cross Cancer Institute on 'watch' status after COVID-19 outbreak in unit

Edmonton's Cross Cancer Institute has declared a COVID-19 outbreak on one of its units. The unit has been closed to new patient admissions and the entire facility is on "watch" status, CBC News has learned.

Staff will be tested and vaccination schedule advanced due to discovery of variant case

Edmonton's Cross Cancer Institute has declared a COVID-19 outbreak on one of its units and the entire facility is on "watch status" following recent COVID-19 cases there. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Edmonton's Cross Cancer Institute has declared a COVID-19 outbreak on one of its units, closed the unit to new patient admissions, and put the entire facility on "watch" status, CBC News has learned.

"Due to recent (non-patient) COVID-19 positive cases at the [Cross Cancer Institute], the facility will advance to a higher COVID status as of today," states a Monday staff memo from site medical director Dr. Charles Butts and executive director David Dyer.

"Inpatient Unit 40 is being declared on outbreak and Units 30 & 31 [are] on Watch status," the memo continues. "The entire facility will also be declared on 'Watch' status" — which means there will be enhanced cleaning and other safety measures.

Unit 40 will be closed to admissions and will only allow visitors and support staff for patients who are near death, the memo says.

The memo says workplace health and safety is recommending COVID-19 testing for all staff who have been at the centre between March 22 and April 5 "for the purposes of protecting the site from further exposure." That testing is scheduled to start Wednesday at the facility.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said three health-care workers have tested positive for COVID-19. One patient who was transferred to the facility last month also tested positive and is linked to the outbreak. That patient died in late March. 

"All healthcare workers at the Cross will receive an invitation to be immunized, due to the fact that the outbreak includes a variant case," the statement said.

Williamson said all patients have been tested and no additional positive cases were found.

Staff at the institute had previously complained about not being vaccinated, which they said could potentially lead to an outbreak.

"None of our staff, save for a handful, are vaccinated," said a doctor who spoke on condition of confidentiality. "So I guess this is exactly what we feared."

The doctor said testing all staff means about 1,000 people will be tested over three days.

Frustration that staff excluded from Phase 1 vaccinations

In a Jan. 27 letter to Alberta Health Services president Dr. Verna Yiu, Butts expressed frustration that unlike their counterparts in other cancer facilities, Cross Cancer Institute staff had not received vaccines in Phase 1A of the province's vaccination rollout.

That phase included health-care workers in COVID-19 units, medical and surgical units, and operating rooms.

Butts warned that a COVID-19 outbreak affecting a significant number of Cross Cancer Institute staff "would jeopardize the delivery of cancer care" to patients in the northern half of the province.

"The CCI deals with a vulnerable population of patients," he told Yiu. "Our patients are immunocompromised due to their malignancies and our treatments."

"One way to provide some protection to our patients is to ensure that their care providers are unlikely to spread COVID to them," Butts wrote, asking for staff to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

But in response, AHS vice-president Dr. Mark Joffe said the health authority determined CCI staff did not meet the requirements for Phase 1 vaccination.

"There is no question that there is a very vulnerable population at the CCI, but we serve very vulnerable populations throughout the system," Joffe wrote in a Feb. 4 letter.

He said oncologists from the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary were included for vaccination because they provide inpatient care to patients at Foothills Medical Centre units that routinely admit COVID-19 patients and can function as COVID units.

Joffe conceded more than 140 Cross Cancer employees, and five oncologists, had received the vaccine due to a unit classification error.

Cross Cancer staff were initially included in Phase 2C of the vaccine rollout, which is expected to begin in May, provided there is enough supply.

'Protecting those people who come here'

"It is frustrating that northern Alberta cancer patients' access to specialized treatments available at the Cross Cancer Institute may be delayed due to the COVID outbreak," said a second physician, who also spoke on condition of confidentiality.

"The possibility of this occurring was relayed to senior AHS leadership early in the new year when advocating for [institute] staff to be vaccinated in Phase 1B, but this was not deemed to be a priority."

The first doctor stressed the push for vaccinations is not just about doctors.

"This is about everybody," the doctor said. "It is about the nurses. It is about the housekeepers, the cafeteria workers.

"It is about all the people that keep your only cancer centre in northern Alberta afloat that need to be protected for the sake of protecting those people who come here."

If you have information about this story, or for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell were reporters with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. They left CBC in 2021. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.

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