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The Peter Lougheed Centre hospital in Calgary on April 9, 2020. Alberta had 1,131 COVID-19 patients in hospital Wednesday and the government expects this number to grow by more than 25 per cent by the end of the month.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta expects to use makeshift hospital beds for some patients next week as a record number of people in the province need acute care owing to the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The province had 1,131 COVID-19 patients in hospital Wednesday and the government expects this number to grow by more than 25 per cent by the end of the month. The influx of COVID-19 patients comes as roughly 5,500 Alberta Health Services staff members are out sick daily. Alberta’s health care workers are now collectively missing 18 to 20 per cent of their shifts, up from the normal rate of about 15 per cent.

Alberta is, once again, dialling back surgeries in order to keep the health care system afloat. But despite the compounding problems in the system, Premier Jason Kenney on Thursday indicated that the situation is not as critical as it was during the fourth wave, when Omicron’s predecessor nearly maxed out Alberta’s capacity to provide intensive care. He also said wastewater data and testing statistics suggest Alberta has “reached and surpassed” the peak of new infections.

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“Fortunately, the pressure really is being experienced in the non-ICU side of the health care system and as we expected, we are not seeing significant additional pressure on intensive care as we did see during the Delta wave,” Mr. Kenney told reporters.

The Premier said the number of people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s hospital could hit 1,500 by the end of January. Prior to this week, hospital admissions topped out at 1,128 on Sept. 27, 2021. At the time, 250 of those COVID-19 patients were in ICU, compared with 108 COVID-19 patients in ICU as of Wednesday.

AHS next week will open 18 temporary beds in the Kaye Edmonton Clinic, and 12 at Calgary’s South Health Campus. The following week, AHS will double the beds at each spot, where patients who need the least amount of care will be treated.

While Mr. Kenney’s remarks were sprinkled with optimism, AHS chief executive Verna Yiu warned that the system is once again on the brink.

“We cannot just simply open more beds,” Dr. Yiu said at the same news conference. “It is not as easy as that. You’ve heard already the challenges that we have with our work force. And it is more of a challenge now than it has been at any other time during the pandemic.”

AHS has about 8,500 beds in its system, and about 6,300 of those are equipped with the staff and equipment necessary to care for a typical COVID-19 patient, she said. AHS has added 278 new surge inpatient hospital beds and revamped another 883 existing beds to make them suitable for COVID-19 patients, she added. (This excludes ICU beds). Alberta currently has 5,334 non-ICU patients in its hospital beds, translating to 89-per-cent occupancy including surge capacity, Dr. Yiu said.

Mr. Kenney said he does not intend to ease restrictions in the province until there is a “sustained decline” in COVID-19 hospital admissions.

To meet staffing demands, the province has shifted to “team-based” care, where a group of health care professionals with complementary skills and experience will collectively care for a larger group of patients rather than individual health care providers minding smaller clusters. The government said 610 nursing students have joined this force, which will free up more experienced staff to deal with more complex health problems.

Cheryl Mack, the president of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, said the government needs to create a plan to inject stability into the health care system. After two years of COVID-19, burned out workers can no longer manage the situation as an emergency.

“The well of skilled [health care workers] is not bottomless and people have been working at levels that aren’t sustainable,” she said. “We all need to hear the plan moving forward to ensure that Albertans can receive the care they need and health care workers get the support they need.”

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