Hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary are running at overcapacity, with one diverting critical care patients to other facilities, another canvassing physicians to pick up extra shifts, and some closing beds because of staff shortages.
And as the health care challenge expands with the coronavirus continuing to spread across Alberta, the province on Thursday introduced another round of modest measures to stem transmission.
Premier Jason Kenney, who is isolating for the second time after being in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, once again rejected the call for widespread business shutdowns. Instead, the province will impose earlier closing hours for bars, prohibit fitness classes and group sports, and limit weddings and funerals to 50 attendees.
These restrictions are limited in geography and expire in two weeks. In recent weeks, the province has been largely relying on voluntary measures, such as asking people in Calgary and Edmonton to stop having parties and to limit the number of people they come into contact with.
Mr. Kenney’s tepid approach to imposing rules has prompted critics to accuse him of putting the health care system in a precarious position. Hospitals in Alberta’s two most-populous cities are running at around 120-per-cent capacity, according to Alberta Health Services.
In Edmonton, Grey Nuns Community Hospital is diverting ambulances with critical-care patients to other facilities as it investigates a potential COVID-19 case in its intensive-care unit, and the Misericordia Community Hospital is begging doctors to sign up for extra shifts. In Calgary, ICUs are at 80-per-cent capacity.
“COVID is starting to win and we cannot let that happen,” Mr. Kenney, who once again tested negative for COVID-19, told reporters. “This two-week push is, I believe, our last chance to avoid more restrictive measures.”
The restrictions apply only to areas on Alberta’s “enhanced” list. The province also introduced more voluntary guidelines, such as asking faith-based organizations to limit attendance to one-third of their capacity and requesting that employers reduce the number of staff in office buildings.
Alberta reported 860 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, with a record 225 people in hospital because of the infection. Of those, 51 people are in intensive care. Across the province, there are 8,305 active cases of the infection.
Alberta’s contact tracers are overwhelmed; last week, the province stopped tracing cases unless the infected individual was a health care worker, minor, or lived or worked in a communal settings.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, noted the province’s rural zones exceed an average of 5-per-cent daily growth in hospital admissions over two weeks. Average daily growth in the rural zones sits at 7 per cent as of Thursday, she said. Further, 73 per cent of the 70 ICU beds earmarked for COVID-19 patients are in use.
Rebeccah Rosenblum, an emergency department physician in Edmonton, said despite being short-staffed and swamped with patients, health care workers are still providing top-notch care. However, that could soon end. “We are only days away from an inability to provide this type of care,” she said.
Officials have had to close beds in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s emergency department because of staff shortages, she said, as an example. Patients who arrive by ambulance are having to wait on stretchers in the hallways for longer periods of time as the system gets backed up, Dr. Rosenblum said. That means the ambulance crew cannot run off to the next call, too.
The system, she said, could collapse within 10 days to two weeks. Dr. Rosenblum said she recognizes that the government has multiple priorities and that the overall well-being of Albertans depends on economic prosperity. “However, I do believe that in this moment, the balance of priorities has to be toward maintaining the health care system.”
Peter Jamieson, the medical director of Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, said ICUs in the city are more than 80-per-cent full, including people with COVID-19 and other patients with unrelated conditions. He said only a small number of the hospital’s 1,111 beds are being used by COVID-19 patients, but he said even a small surge of patients can make it difficult for the facility to cope.
“We are very concerned to see the level of community transmission of COVID,” he said. “ICU demand ebbs and flows routinely, but having even a relatively small number of COVID patients is a serious concern.”
Other provinces have put in measures similar to Mr. Kenney’s latest restrictions, though primarily when infection rates were far below Alberta’s current reality.
British Columbia, for example, placed nearly identical limits on the operating hours of restaurants and bars in September and this week prohibited fitness classes and sports in the Vancouver region. Manitoba restricted hours for restaurants and bars a month ago, before the province was prompted this week to impose sweeping restrictions. Those limits include shutting down most in-person retail and dine-in service at restaurants, as well as banning social gatherings, religious services and sports for four weeks.
Toronto banned in-person dining this week after the provincial government shut down dine-in service in several regions only to announce plans to lift those restrictions this weekend.
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said 73 per cent of youth ICU beds were in use. In fact, 73 per cent of all the 70 ICU beds set side aside for all COVID-19 patients are in use.