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The South Health Campus adult acute care hospital in Calgary, Alta., is seen on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, amid a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta's health delivery body says it's turning to staffing agencies for nurses as "a last resort," saying its local supply of nurses is "close to being exhausted" as intensive care units approach capacity.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s health delivery body says it’s turning to staffing agencies for nurses as “a last resort,” saying its local supply of nurses is “close to being exhausted” as intensive care units approach capacity.

Alberta Health Services says in an emailed statement that a “critical staffing challenge” is limiting its ability to open additional beds, which it says is “placing strain” on its ability to care for patients.

The news follows announcements Friday of another round of surgery cancellations as ICUs reached 95 per cent full, as well the return of a province-wide mask mandate.

Alberta has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases averaging more than one-thousand a day for the past week — the most in Canada.

The United Nurses of Alberta says AHS has told them it is dropping an unfair labour practice complaint against the union from last month, which alleged the union falsely claimed nurses were being recruited through a third party for higher pay while contract talks were going on.

AHS spokeswoman Amy Crofts confirms the labour board complaint has been dropped, but when asked if the contracted nurses would be paid more, responded that it’s up to the companies to decide how much their nurses are paid.

“In order to alleviate this staffing challenge, AHS is again working with contract staff supplied by staffing agencies, as a last resort to prevent further disruption of services and patient care,” the AHS email said.

“We are doing all we can to open additional capacity, however our biggest challenge right now is finding available healthcare workers to staff those surge beds.”

The AHS statement noted that the action is allowed under the existing collective agreement.

The nurses union says AHS informed them in a letter on Friday that three agencies would be contracted — Toronto-based Greenstaff Medical Canada, Northern Nursing Solutions of Airdrie, Alta., and Brylu Staffing of Vancouver.

It said UNA nurses have not received any pay increases for the past five years.

AHS also told UNA two weeks ago that they could be forced to work mandatory overtime and have their holidays cancelled in response to increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations and staffing shortages.

The province reported Friday that there were 515 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 118 of them in intensive care. That’s double the numbers from 11 days earlier.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has declined to bring in a vaccine passport as is being done in Quebec, British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba to encourage vaccination.

Kenney announced Friday that his government is offering $100 to unvaccinated Albertans if they go get their shots.

The government also announced that masks are now required for all indoor public spaces and workplaces in Alberta, except in classrooms, where decisions are up to school boards.

Licensed bars, restaurants and pubs must also stop alcohol sales by 10 p.m.

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