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Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw, seen here in Edmonton on March 20, 2020, said she hopes the province never needs to take advantage of the added capacity

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Health officials in Alberta are working to set aside as many as 2,000 acute-care beds and 400 intensive-care spaces for COVID-19 patients as the province copes with a rapid increase in infections.

Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said she hopes the province never needs to take advantage of the added capacity, which could only be met by cancelling surgeries and other care.

But the province’s health care system is taking steps to be prepared if hospitalizations continue the sharp upward trajectory seen in recent weeks.

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“That is contingency planning,” she said on Wednesday. “I would hope that we never have to utilize that volume of beds for COVID-19 patients because that would result in the stopping of not just the elective surgeries but we might have to move to even more urgent surgeries being postponed in order to get to that level of beds.”

There were 355 people in hospital, including 71 in intensive care, as of Tuesday – the highest since the pandemic began.

The rapid increase in hospitalizations, which have more than doubled in a little more than two weeks, prompted the government to announce a series of new measures on Tuesday in an attempt to bring infections under control.

Those measures include temporarily moving junior high and high-school students to online learning, banning all indoor social gatherings, and placing additional restrictions on retailers, restaurants and other businesses.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that internal projections from Alberta’s health authority showed hospitalizations could double to 129 patients in intensive care in the span of weeks under the worst-case scenario. The plans outlined on Wednesday indicate the province is also bracing for those numbers to climb even higher.

Dr. Hinshaw said the province would hit the new bed targets through a combination of adding new beds and also reallocating space by transferring patients out of acute care and into continuing care facilities. COVID-19 has also prompted the closing of hundreds of continuing care beds and increased wait times for those spots. Dr. Hinshaw said the province would be working with operators to create new continuing care spaces.

Alberta has among the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the country, adding an average of 1,300 cases every day for the past week and reaching a total of 500 deaths on Wednesday.

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Public-health experts had been calling for what has been described as a “circuit breaker” lockdown, in which businesses would close and activity be restricted for a period of weeks to bring infections under control. Premier Jason Kenney, however, stopped far short of that and instead argued that a lockdown would be harmful and a violation of the public’s rights.

Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases expert at the University of Alberta, said the new restrictions will likely slow the spread of COVID-19 but they may not be enough given the dire situation in the province.

“I do think that they will help reduce transmission,” Dr. Saxinger said. “The real question is whether they’ll help us avert disaster, and I’m not sure if they will do that or not.”

She said the province is making decisions based on what it knew about how COVID-19 was spreading before the recent surge in infections. Since that started, the increased volume prompted the province to suspend most of its contract tracing system and now very little is known about where people are getting sick.

The measures are set to last three weeks, at which point the Premier said his government will decide whether they can be relaxed or need to be tightened further. Dr. Saxinger said the government should be prepared to act sooner if the data show infections are not slowing down even in the next week, when there should already be some impact from the new restrictions.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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