As COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations continue to surge in Alberta amid the pandemic’s fourth wave, the province’s health authority says the strain put on the health system will affect non-urgent surgeries.
In a news release issued Friday, Alberta Health Services said up to 30 per cent of non-urgent surgeries and procedures in the Edmonton zone will be postponed as well as about 45 “elective surgical procedures per week” in Grande Prairie as the health authority is “taking steps to create additional acute and ICU capacity.”
“(This is) to ensure we have the beds and staff required to take care of all patients needing hospital care, including those with COVID-19 as well as other Albertans who are sick or injured.,” AHS said.
READ MORE: Alberta reports 1,112 new COVID-19 infections Thursday as hospitalizations rise
On Friday afternoon, Alberta Health reported that 1,168 new COVID-19 cases had been identified in the province over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of active coronavirus cases in Alberta to 9,655. As of Friday afternoon, there were 336 people in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19. Of those, 74 were in intensive care units.
In a tweet on Friday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that of the 262 non-ICU patients, 77.1 per cent are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, while of the 74 people in ICUs, 97.3 per cent are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.
As of Friday, the Edmonton zone had more active COVID-19 cases than any other region in the province with 3,026.
AHS said the postponements, which will begin Monday, mimics surgical reductions that resulted from previous COVID-19 waves in Alberta. The postponed procedures in Grande Prairie will all be at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital to “allow the site to increase bed capacity and create a dedicated COVID-19 unit.”
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“AHS is currently working through the province’s surgical backlog brought on by the pandemic,” the health authority said. “For the last two months we have been operating at 100 per cent of pre-COVID-19 surgical levels, and have been performing more non-urgent scheduled surgeries.
“All backlogged surgeries in wave one have been rebooked and 96 per cent of all delayed surgeries from wave one, two and three have been completed.”
Global News has reached out to Alberta Health and Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s office for comment on the postponed surgeries.
After AHS delivered news of the postponed procedures, the Opposition’s health critic issued a statement about the development.
“I feel for these families,” David Shepherd said. “These Albertans waiting for surgery will have to wait even longer due to the complete lack of leadership from the UCP government in the middle of a public health crisis.
“The UCP ignored every warning sign while telling Albertans they did not foresee a fourth wave. Now, it’s here.”
Shepherd also said he believes it is time for Premier Jason Kenney or Shandro to publicly present a plan for how their government plans to deal with the fourth of COVID-19 in the province.
AHS urged all Albertans who have yet to be fully immunized against COVID-19 to do so and called on people to stay home when they are ill.
“Things are very fluid,” Braden Manns, associate chief medical health officer with AHS, told Global News about the province’s COVID-19 situation.
“We’ve seen a striking increase in the number of COVID cases in the… past few weeks. We’ve seen more than 1,000 per day in the past three days and a concerning increase in ICU and hospital admissions. So we’re taking steps to protect the health-care system.”
Manns said while the surgery disruptions currently are only set to impact the Edmonton zone and the North zone, officials are keeping a close eye on the health-care system’s capacity in the province’s others zones as well.
He said the decision to postpone surgeries to accommodate the growing pressure COVID-19 and other factors are placing on the health system is being made earlier in the fourth wave than it was in the previous two waves and that there are reasons for that.
“Our staff are tired from several waves of the pandemic,” Manns said. “And we’ve lost some staff from intensive care units and emergency rooms and our part-time staff aren’t as willing to come in and cover shifts, and so we’re having to start with redeployments a littler earlier than in the past.
“I really hope that these don’t go on for too long but our plan is to make sure that we have a health system that can manage the demand it’s going to be under the next couple of weeks.”
Manns said while the postponements only impact elective surgeries, AHS knows that “postponing any surgery has impacts on those patients.”
“And we very much wish that we were not having to do this,” he said. “But these are surgeries that we can safely postpone and rebook as soon as we can.
“When you start doing service disruptions like this, where we’re cancelling surgeries, we can start to use some of the staff from the post-op recovery rooms in our intensive care units, (but) it takes a while. We don’t just start and people show up the next day to work in the intensive care unit. It takes four to five days.
“I’m concerned… that we’re going to start to see the need for increasing service disruptions over the coming weeks. I can’t give you an exact estimate of the number of people.”
Two weeks ago, Alberta backtracked on a plan to scale back COVID-19 testing and contact tracing and to lift COVID-19 protocols that included requiring people with the disease to stay home while they are sick. When chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw made the announcement, she said the decision was made in order to give health officials more time to assess the situation.
READ MORE: Alberta keeping COVID-19 measures for another 6 weeks
“If monitoring confirms our original expectations that a rise in cases will not lead to high levels of (hospitalizations) and we do not see evidence of increased risk for severe disease for children, we will proceed with implementing the next set of changes after Sept. 27,” she said at the time.