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Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro speaks during a news conference in Calgary, on May 29, 2020.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A field hospital being set up on the University of Alberta campus will be operational by January, but Health Minister Tyler Shandro says it remains a last-ditch contingency.

Mr. Shandro says the temporary 100-bed facility in Edmonton would only be necessary if current hospital limits, including an extra 2,250 beds being readied provincewide for COVID-19 patients, were reached.

“This is a contingency plan,” Mr. Shandro said Thursday during a virtual news conference in which he announced the expansion of rapid COVID-19 testing.

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“This is not part of the current forecast, the current plan.”

He said a decision to use the field hospital would be up to Alberta Health Services, which is tasked with delivering front-line care.

The Canadian Red Cross is helping set up the site inside the Universiade Pavilion. The cavernous, multi-purpose sports facility is most often referred to as the Butterdome because of its rectangular shape and yellow exterior.

The field hospital would be used for non-critical patients and patients who were recovering from COVID-19, but were unlikely to spread the novel coronavirus.

Alberta already has a field hospital outside the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary. It’s currently being used to allow for extra physical distancing for treatment of emergency care patients.

The province has been dealing with high caseloads of COVID-19 patients. Daily case counts have been over 1,000 for a month. As of Wednesday, there were more than 20,000 active cases with 749 people in hospital, 139 of them in intensive care.

Edmonton and the surrounding area have been particularly hard hit. 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.

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Overall, intensive care beds are being added or opened up by moving non-critical patients to beds in continuing-care centres.

Mr. Shandro said hospitals can expect the tough slog to continue through the end of the year, even with vaccinations that started earlier this week and tighter restrictions that have closed down community and public spaces and sharply curtailed retail activity,

“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.”

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said creating extra hospital space is prudent, but she added the field hospital is a consequence of the government’s failure to take steps much earlier to reverse the surge in the second wave.

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Ms. Notley said it’s also symptomatic of the resistance by Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government to come clean with Albertans on what they’re truly up against.

She noted that Mr. Kenney has failed to follow through on a recent promise to make public some hospitalization and ICU numbers and predictions.

And when news of the field hospital was leaked to CBC News weeks ago, Mr. Shandro insisted it was part of preliminary discussions on future possibilities, she said.

“I imagine [Mr. Shandro] will keep saying that right up to the moment when the first patients arrive, perhaps even after.”

The government has also been rolling out rapid testing to supplement conventional tests for COVID-19. About 1,000 people have already received the rapid tests, with 76 testing positive.

Mr. Shandro said rapid testing will be expanded to high-risk long-term care homes and designated supported living facilities, first in Edmonton, then Calgary and later to points outside the two cities.

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The rapid test is not as sensitive as the conventional one, but results can be determined within minutes rather than hours or days. The test allows patients to be isolated faster and reduces the chances of spread to others.

“We can notify health care teams sooner to prioritize those who are still infectious, and it will also free up capacity and reduce turnaround times for the (conventional) tests,” Mr. Shandro said.

Alberta has received more than 800,000 rapid tests from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The province is expecting new shipments of vaccine in the coming weeks. The plan is to have everyone inoculated by next fall.

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