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Police surround an ambulance in Calgary on May 28, 2008. Alberta Health Services has issued nearly 100 public notices since the start of the year of emergency and urgent care departments temporarily closing or reducing hours across the province.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

An urgent care clinic in Calgary is reducing its hours in the face of a staffing shortage that has already forced dozens of closings or service reductions this year at emergency departments across the province.

Alberta Health Services said Tuesday that urgent care at the South Calgary Health Centre will now only accept patients between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., closing two hours earlier than the previous time of 10 p.m. The health authority said the change was necessary “within the current staffing model” and that it has been been unable to increase staffing because of “workforce challenges.”

In response to the announcement, Calgary’s municipal government warned of systemic failures in the health care system, while the provincial Opposition called on the Alberta government to act quickly to address the problem.

Staffing shortages have become an acute dilemma across not only Alberta, but Canada as a whole, with long wait times and outright closings becoming increasingly common. Ontario Premier Doug Ford responded to a deepening crisis in his province on Wednesday, insisting that people can access the care they need while adding that staffing is a national challenge.

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AHS has issued nearly 100 public notices since the start of the year of hospital emergency and urgent care departments temporarily closing or reducing hours across Alberta, primarily in rural areas and smaller communities.

According to a statement from AHS spokesperson James Wood, staffing at the SCHC’s urgent care centre is at pre-pandemic levels but the issue is a “very significant increase in demand.”

The urgent care centre is seeing an average of 145 patients a day, 18 per cent above pre-pandemic levels, and more of those patients had been showing up after 8 p.m., forcing doctors and staff to stay beyond their shifts.

The statement says there remains significant pressure on emergency departments owing to the continued effect of COVID-19, as well as staff vacancies and illnesses. Mr. Wood wrote that AHS is actively recruiting staff and has increased the number of people working in the province’s emergency departments in recent years.

“This is not unique to Alberta and is being experienced across the country,” the statement says.

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping’s press secretary directed questions to AHS.

Calgary deputy mayor Courtney Walcott said the latest reduction points to systemic failures in the health system. He said the COVID-19 pandemic revealed gaps that had existed for many years and have only intensified, such as staffing shortages, burnout among health care workers and lengthy wait times for care.

“We have several years of austerity with regard to the health care system. We are seeing the province look toward getting their books in the black more than they are ensuring that there’s a standard of care for all Calgarians,” Mr. Walcott said.

The city councillor said that while municipalities do not have jurisdiction over the delivery of health services, they should be included in conversations with the province to help residents understand changes and alternatives to access care, and advocate for better supports when needed.

“We hear, we see and we feel all of these cuts very close to home, so we have to be a part of that conversation to help people understand what impact this is going to have and especially how to communicate it if it’s inevitable,” he said.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek raised similar concerns last month after AHS announced that an urgent care centre in Airdrie, just north of the city, would close overnights on the weekends for eight weeks.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the recent urgent-care service reductions in Calgary and Edmonton were a clear signal that the United Conservative Party government must take action to save the health system. She said the UCP should guarantee job security for front-line workers, attract new workers and address other health crises, such as opioid overdoses.

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