Alberta Health Services is postponing more surgeries in all areas of the province as demand for hospital space increases due to a rise of COVID-19 cases.
In an update Friday, AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the health authority is taking the additional steps to create more ICU capacity, which hit 95 per cent province-wide Friday morning.
“We do not make these decisions lightly and we acknowledge that postponing surgeries and procedures has a very deep impact on those impacted patients, families and their loved ones,” Yiu said.
“It is imperative that we maintain capacity in our hospitals, not just for patients with COVID-19 but for any Albertan who needs care and critical care.”
Postponements of non-urgent surgeries started Friday morning.
In the North zone, up to 60 per cent of scheduled surgeries and procedures will be postponed next week.
In the Edmonton zone, upwards of 50 per cent of procedures will be postponed. Some non-urgent pediatric procedures will also be reduced by 30 per cent in order to support adult critical care, Yiu explained.
In the Central zone, up to 40 per cent of endoscopy procedures and 30 per cent of scheduled surgeries will be postponed.
In the Calgary and South zones, up to 30 per cent of scheduled surgeries, endoscopy and outpatient visits will be postponed.
AHS said it will maintain urgent and emergent procedures, as well as prioritized cancer surgeries.
The pressure on the health-care system has drastically increased in the last few weeks.
On Aug. 24, there were 243 non-ICU patients in the hospital with COVID-19. On Sept. 1, just over a week later, there were 373 people in hospital with COVID-19 — a 54 per cent increase.
On Aug. 24, there were 59 patients in the ICU with COVID-19. On Sept. 1, that number had jumped by 93 per cent to 114 patients.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 515 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across Alberta. Of those people, 118 were being treated in ICUs.
“The number of Albertans needing ICU care has increased rapidly in the past week and while our front-line teams are doing an incredible job in caring for Albertans, we need your help,” Yiu stressed.
According to the province, more than 80 per cent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations have been unvaccinated people since Aug. 1.
Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room doctor, projects that if the hospitalization trend continues as-is, there will be 424 people in the ICU in 18 days.
“We’re full up now at 107,” Vipond said. “That seems pretty bad to me. I don’t know a way out.
“I think we’re going to be starting to triage and so people who otherwise would have survived due to good intensive care will be dying in the next few weeks. And that’s the sad reality.”
Also Friday, Premier Jason Kenney announced temporary measures aimed at slowing the COVID-19 spread, including a province-wide mask mandate in all indoor public settings (excluding schools) and a 10 p.m. cutoff for liquor service at restaurants, pubs and other licensed establishments. In addition, unvaccinated people are encouraged to limit in-person contacts.
Vipond said the additional measures announced by the province Friday are “grossly inadequate.”
“There’s going to be impacts on every single one of us. This is the refrigerator trucks full of dead bodies moment in Alberta’s history.”
Yiu said work is underway to expand acute care and ICU capacity and staff those beds as quickly as possible. She said 47 additional surge beds have been built on top of the 173 baseline ICU capacity.
Danielle Larivee, first vice-president of United Nurses of Alberta, said the province is in an “incredibly dangerous position.”
“We’re going into a long weekend, we are not at the peak yet,” she said. “Our capacity to ramp up is way lower than it ever has been.
“Nurses and other health-care colleagues are burnt out, they’re overwhelmed, they’re tired and we’re actually seeing people who are inexperienced having to come in and fill the gap. And in an area like ICU for example, that’s so critical, that’s not in anyone’s best interest.”
AHS is also working to add additional capacity ahead of the Labour Day long weekend.
“It is going to be a struggle. There is no question about that but the teams are working very hard,” Yiu said Friday during a provincial COVID-19 update.
AHS said the surgical postponements will help free up space in Alberta hospitals for patients who need higher levels of care, as well as support the redeployment of front-line staff and resources to the areas of greatest need.
“One of the benefits of an integrated provincialized system is we’re actually able to work provincially to make sure that we’re able to spread the resources across the province,” Yiu said.
“So although Edmonton may be really tight, we do know that we potentially have some more spaces, for example, in Calgary and in South zone. So understanding that we’re able to shift the resources to make sure that we’ve got adequate resources across the province.”
Calgary zone is opening five beds in the Pandemic Response Unit at South Health Campus to be used for day medicine patients, not patients with COVID-19. The day medicine spaces in SHC will be used for general inpatients, AHS said.
Edmonton zone is preparing the PRU at the Kaye Edmonton Clinic, which AHS said has the potential to open in the next few weeks. AHS said patients who are recovering from COVID-19 and are deemed to be a low risk of transmitting the virus would be treated here if the capacity is required.
AHS once again stressed that staffing has become a critical issue during this fourth wave of the pandemic. As a result, AHS is asking all part-time and casual staff who are available to take extra shifts to do so.
“We acknowledge that our front-line physicians and staff are tired after 19 months of pandemic response,” AHS said in a news release. “We are extremely grateful for everything they have done for Albertans, and we regret asking them to go above and beyond again.
“This situation is serious, and we would like to remind all Albertans that we need their help in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in the community, which in turn will reduce strain on the health-care system.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the health system will be there for Albertans who need it.
“We feel for those who are working in our hospitals and we’re grateful for them,” he said.
“I know how deeply they care about their patients and I promise them that we will support AHS in any way that’s needed to make sure that they can give patients safe care.”
Yiu urged every eligible Albertan to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible.
“Please don’t hesitate.”
During the same news conference Friday, Kenney announced a $100 gift card incentive for anyone who receives their first or second dose of COVID-19 vaccine between Sept. 3 and Oct. 14.
As of Thursday, 70 per cent of eligible Albertans 12 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
AHS said all affected patients will be contacted directly and any additional postponements will be shared “proactively with the public.”