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Alberta is considering asking the Canadian Red Cross for help with field hospitals as a “contingency” measure.

CANADIAN RED CROSS

Alberta has been in talks with the Canadian Red Cross about a field hospital tent as a “contingency” measure to treat a rapidly rising number of COVID-19 patients who need acute medical care.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the conversations between Alberta health officials and the humanitarian group have been focused on negotiating a contract, so a tent is available should Alberta need it. He said it’s not a part of the current work being done by the province to significantly increase acute care bed capacity to 2,250.

These are “conversations about a contingency plan, which health officials should be doing,” Mr. Shandro said at a news conference on Wednesday.

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“It could be a plan that is potentially used in the future. That’s why there’s a conversation with the Red Cross, to at least secure that tent.”

Mr. Shandro did not directly answer questions about a CBC report Wednesday that said Alberta had also asked Ottawa to supply field hospital tents to help offset the strain on the health care system. However, a federal official speaking on background to The Globe and Mail said Ottawa was expecting Alberta to make a formal request for help with field hospitals, as early as Wednesday evening.

The official said the federal government would immediately approve such a request. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the premiers to plan for the weeks ahead, as federal resources are finite. The Globe is not identifying the federal official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss Alberta’s request.

This fall, Alberta has suffered some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. There are 504 people in hospital, 97 of whom are in intensive care. And there are 17,144 active COVID-19 cases – a number higher than in Ontario, a province with more than three times the population.

The Alberta government has been scrambling to bolster its acute-care and intensive-care unit capacity. Already in August, Alberta established a 766-square-metre temporary field hospital outside of Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Centre, to ensure capacity to treat COVID-19 cases. The Sprung Structures tent hospital has been used as an extension of the centre’s emergency department.

Last week, the province announced plans to set aside as many as 2,250 acute-care beds and 425 intensive-care spaces for COVID-19 patients – a measure that Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw then also described as “contingency planning.” Hitting those targets would require cancelling surgeries, repurposing space for ICU patients and transferring some acute-care patients out of hospitals and into continuing-care facilities. An Edmonton hospital is already double-bunking COVID-19 patients receiving intensive care.

On Wednesday, Mr. Shandro said the double-bunking practice is safe and appropriate, and is done when hospital demand surges. “This is something we have seen in hospitals before.”

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There are also COVID-19 cases at dozens of facilities for seniors. Susan Slade, vice-president at the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents nursing and other staff who work in seniors care, said the current situation in long-term care facilities is “tragic.”

“There’s outbreaks everywhere. The staffing shortage is incredible,” Ms. Slade said. “And seniors are dying.”

Alberta’s predicament made it into Question Period at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, with Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott pushing back at the suggestion her province’s health care system is at a crisis point. “You want to speak about who is in crisis? Have you have taken a look at Alberta, where they’re doubling up patients in intensive-care units? We’re not doing that in Ontario.”

With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa

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