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Alberta Health Services says the current spate of hospital bed closures is minimal, not unusual and isn’t affecting patient care.

But the United Nurses of Alberta and the Opposition NDP says that data doesn’t match the reality on the ground.

Deb Gordon, the chief operating officer for AHS, said Friday that more than 98 per cent of beds in acute and emergency care are available provincewide.

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Gordon says there are only two locations – Fort Vermilion and Elk Point – where emergency services have closed and patients were forced to be sent elsewhere at certain times.

Gordon said beds open and close routinely to respond to patient and staffing needs and that is common to every health system.

She added that COVID-19 has proven a challenge, noting staff worked harder and longer during the pandemic and may not always be available now for summer relief as in years past.

But she stressed it’s not affecting patients.

“The short-term, temporary bed closures have limited impact on our ability to provide safe, quality patient care,” said Gordon. “Any patients needing emergency care anywhere in Alberta or needing an acute-care bed will receive the high quality of care you expect.

“We have a safe and stable system in place.”

AHS was responding to recent reports from frontline health workers of bed and department closures at several Alberta hospitals.

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The Opposition NDP said there have been bed closures, cancelled surgeries or shuttered emergency rooms in communities across the province – including Edson, Grande Prairie, Rocky Mountain House, Cold Lake, Lac La Biche, High Prairie, Slave Lake, Wainwright, Lacombe, Barrhead and Edmonton.

There have been six temporary emergency bed closures at the busy downtown Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, but Gordon said 50 spaces remain open.

She also noted that other recent bed closures, such as six out of 36 at the Rocky Mountain House hospital, do not equal service reduction but instead match resources with demand.

“Even though the beds were closed, all admitted acute-care patients have a bed and there is room for us to admit additional patients as needed,” said Gordon.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the closures are due to a critical shortage of front-line staff, a situation worsened by a provincial government alienating nurses by demanding wage rollbacks in the current round of contract negotiations.

“This is not normal,” said Notley. “We need action and we need it now.

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“It is unfathomable to me that this government wants to tear down public health care at a time when its importance has never been more apparent to Albertans.”

Gordon said the current vacancy rate for nursing jobs is about 6.8 per cent, slightly higher than the normal rate of six per cent, but due mainly to more workers being hired temporarily to deal with the pandemic.

David Harrigan, director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta, said the data doesn’t match what the union is seeing in hospitals.

Harrigan said the breadth, duration, and location of bed closures are highly unusual.

“I can’t remember them closing facilities and transferring patients to a different facility. I’ve just never seen that happen. I don’t think we’ve ever seen them closing beds in the emergency department before. That’s extremely unusual,” said Harrigan.

Harrigan said the staffing crunch is due to myriad factors. They include COVID-19, summer vacations, and nurse pushback against heavy workloads and a provincial government seeking to cut their salaries, he said.

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“If people are tired and burned out, insulting them is not going to make things better. It’s going to make things worse,” he said.

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