University of Alberta Hospital nearly doubles ICU beds as Edmonton zone hits 89% capacity

The University of Alberta Hospital has nearly doubled its intensive care capacity in recent weeks, creating surge beds to help deal with the fourth wave of COVID-19.

ICU doctor says numbers are higher than ever before amid COVID-19 surge

The University of Alberta has had to increase its intensive care capacity as hospitals across the province deal with surging COVID-19 cases. (David Bajer/CBC)

The University of Alberta Hospital has nearly doubled its intensive care capacity in recent weeks, creating surge beds to help deal with the fourth wave of COVID-19.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said Wednesday that Edmonton zone hospitals are operating 89 per cent of their 137 intensive care beds, which includes 65 surge spaces. Of those in critical care, 104 were COVID-19 cases.

The University of Alberta Hospital — like many facilities across the province — has had to find more space where it can. 

"We're spilling over into other ICUs, we've opened all sorts of contingency ICUs," Dr. Peter Brindley, a critical care physician who has worked at the hospital for decades, said in an interview from the ICU ward. 

"Every nurse, every doctor is working their hardest to try and drag people through this."

AHS said the hospital typically operates 28 ICU spaces but has added 23 surge beds in recent weeks at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute — for a total of 51 as of Wednesday. The number fluctuates according to demand, AHS said.

Around 50 per cent of patients in the hospital's ICU beds have COVID-19.

According to an update from Dr. Verna Yiu on Wednesday, ICUs in the province are operating at 88 per cent capacity

Following the course of previous waves, AHS says patients at the Stollery's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit are being temporarily moved to another ICU to use the spaces for critically ill adults.

But Brindley warns it's not as simple as just opening another bed space.

"The problem is each time we open more beds, it requires more nurses, it requires more doctors and the doctors and the nurses are already overstretched and already exhausted."

He said there also may be a misconception that any doctor or nurse could step into the role.

"This is very specialized care once you get to the point of needing life support machines," he said, also noting that the work can only be done in certain locations.

"You couldn't be doing this in peripheral hospitals where they don't have ventilators and trained staff and the right pumps and the right equipment."

'Get a vaccine'

Brindley said the ICU numbers are worse than ever before. He, like other health-care professionals, says the solution to the crisis is simple.

"It is the vaccine. It's not some magical horse deworming agent, it's not hydroxychloroquine, it's not anything else that anyone's read from some of the dodgy ends of the internet.

"It's to get a vaccine."

As of Wednesday, 74.34 per cent of hospitalized cases were unvaccinated while 3.65 per cent were partially vaccinated and 22.01 per cent were fully vaccinated.

Brindley said all the vaccinated ICU cases he's seen have been among people who were immunosuppressed from organ transplants.

Dr. Ron Brisebois, a colleague who previously served as a doctor in the Canadian Forces, said the preventable situation is devastating to watch.

"I've been to a war zone 10 times in my career — five trips to Afghanistan," he said. 

"I've never felt as exasperated in any of those tours, as I do right now, in a major tertiary care Canadian hospital."