Temporary hospital under construction in Edmonton's Butterdome

Alberta Health Services and the Red Cross are setting up a 100-bed temporary hospital in the Butterdome, says the province’s chief medical officer of health.

Facility could care for up to 100 patients recovering from COVID-19

Alberta Health Services and the Red Cross are setting up a temporary field hospital inside the University of Alberta's Butterdome, in the event hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID and other patients. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Health Services and the Red Cross are setting up a 100-bed temporary hospital in the University of Alberta's Butterdome, says the province's chief medical officer of health.

"There is no plan to staff these beds unless they are needed," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said at her daily COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday. "This is a purely precautionary measure for use if needed in the future."

Branded as an "alternate care centre," the temporary setup on the University of Alberta campus could be used for patients recovering from COVID-19 and who are at low risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus that causes the disease, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email.

He said other patients without COVID-19 could also be cared for inside the arena.

CBC News first reported earlier this month that internal documents contained plans to establish two or more Alberta field hospitals to accommodate up to 750 patients, should bricks-and-mortar hospitals become overwhelmed.

On Dec. 3, Premier Jason Kenney said the field hospital plans were a sign of "responsible planning on our part for [a] potential extreme scenario."

At the time, he said hospitalizations in Alberta were nowhere near the 2,250 possible beds that could be freed up to accommodate pandemic patients.

However, COVID-19 cases aren't distributed evenly across the province.

As of Wednesday, there were 749 patients with COVID in Alberta hospitals, including 418 in the Edmonton zone.

Alberta Health Services has been cancelling non-urgent surgeries and trying to move patients to continuing care facilities to free up more beds, Williamson said.

In the Edmonton zone, AHS has nearly doubled the number of intensive care beds to 126 from 66, he said.

Williamson did not have updated bed-use projections available on Wednesday evening.

    'Not part of the current forecast'

    During a news conference Thursday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the facility would only be necessary if current hospital limits, including creating up to 2,250 beds provincewide for COVID-19 patients, are reached.

    "This is a contingency plan," Shandro told reporters. "This is not part of the current forecast, the current plan."

    Shandro said the decision to use the field hospital is up to Alberta Health Services, the arm of the government tasked with delivering front-line care.

      The province has been dealing with high caseloads of new COVID-19 patients, with new daily case counts over 1,000 for a month.

      Edmonton and the surrounding area have been particularly hard hit. And to preserve emergency response in the region, about 60 per cent of non-urgent surgeries — those that require a hospital stay — are on hold. Diagnostic imaging and other clinical support services are being cut by up to 40 per cent.

      Overall, the health system is adding new intensive care beds and freeing up others by moving non-critical patients to beds in continuing-care centres.

      Even with these changes, Shandro said hospitals can expect the tough slog to continue through the end of the year.

      "The toughest weeks for our hospitals and our health-care providers are still ahead of us," he said.

      "There are too many very sick people in our hospitals and the numbers are going to keep going up for at least another couple of weeks because of the high numbers of new infections.

      "It's going to be a tough Christmas."

      'A concern' over Christmas 

      Retired intensive care Dr. Noel Gibney said that although the number of new daily COVID-19 cases appears to be stabilizing, the demand on hospitals will continue to grow as a proportion of people who fall ill develop complications.

      One difficulty is that COVID-19 patients spend a relatively long time in hospital — 10 to 14 days on average. That means new patients are arriving faster than people who recover are being discharged, said Gibney, who worked in critical care in Edmonton for 40 years.

      Add to COVID-19 patients the people sick with other ailments, like heart disease, cancer or neurological problems, who can't wait for hospital care.

      "Clearly there's a concern that the numbers of patients are going to be more than we have room for in our acute hospitals," Gibney said of the overflow plans. "I can't imagine that they would be doing this, and talking about it, if it wasn't a very real possibility."

      Gibney said another challenge is that patients with and without COVID need to be kept separated, both in conventional hospitals and any temporary facilities. Staffing additional beds is another hurdle, and field hospitals may rely more heavily on licensed practical nurses and health-care aides, he said.

      Christmas may also be causing AHS and the government some anxiety, Gibney said. Despite a mandatory ban on visitors from outside the household, "It's Christmas. It's New Year's. And people are people," he said.

      After seeing surges in COVID-19 cases after both Canadian and American Thanksgivings, health officials may be right to predict another jump in numbers when visitors spread more than just holiday cheer, he said.

      In the spring, the Butterdome previously served as a temporary COVID-19 assessment centre.

      A temporary building constructed in the summer at Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary is also being used as an extension of the emergency department.

      As of Wednesday, 760 people with COVID-19 had died in Alberta since the virus arrived in March.


      Janet French

      Provincial affairs reporter

      Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

      With files from The Canadian Press