Spaces intended for the daytime care of kids at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton have been temporarily converted for emergency use as demand for ER care soars across Alberta.
“Due to high patient demand and acuity in the University of Alberta Hospital emergency department, we will begin using the renovated day ward space at Stollery Children’s Hospital for adult or pediatric emergency overflow,” Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson told Global News on Saturday.
News of the changes became public after Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley tweeted a photo of an AHS memo.
The letter dated Monday, Jan. 17 said the move to accommodate emergency overflow would begin as early as this past Wednesday.
“This re-allocation of space means the Stollery will maintain the current seven operating theatres, rather than advance to eight operating theatres as was planned for February 2022.
“If pediatric surgery volumes experience a surge, new options and solutions will be explored.”
The renovated day ward was not yet being utilized for pediatric surgical patients, Williamson said, so the overflow use will not result in any reduction in pediatric surgeries currently being performed at the Stollery.
A small number of scheduled pediatric surgeries that were booked to take place in the newly renovated space in February will be rescheduled though, he said.
Emergency department demand soaring in Alberta
On Friday, Medicine Hat emergency room physician Dr. Paul Parks told Global News some patients in Alberta are having to wait 8 to 10 hours in some emergency rooms.
Even patients without COVID-19 who are suffering from chest pains or broken bones are experiencing long waits and are often put in beds in hallways.
Those long wait times also tie up paramedics and result in parked ambulances. EMS crews are often stuck inside hospitals for hours, waiting for their patients to be admitted.
In mid-January, the president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta said the EMS system was “stretched to a point where we’ve never been.”
On Jan. 10 alone, there were more than a dozen red alerts in the Edmonton area — those usually aren’t called unless there is a major disaster. A red alert or “code red” refers to times when there aren’t any ambulances available to respond to calls.
Alberta opening up pandemic response unit beds
Earlier this week, Alberta Health announced it would be opening extra pandemic response unit beds inside the Kaye Edmonton Clinic and at Calgary’s South Health Campus to help ease pressure on the health care system.
Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said 18 beds are ready to be activated at the Kaye Clinic, with plans to open an additional 18 beds the week of Jan. 31 if needed.
The pandemic response units were prepared earlier in the pandemic to act as overflow capacity, and care for patients with COVID-19 who are almost ready to be released from hospital, but may need additional monitoring.
However, Yiu stressed easing pressure on the health-care system is not as easy as just opening beds. Staffing has been more of a challenge during the Omicron wave.
There are thousands of health-care workers out with the virus or burnout — in addition to those who have walked away from the profession altogether.
Yiu said the AHS absentee rate is high, with five per cent of staff out sick at any given time. This translates to about 5,500 staff members province-wide. Yiu said 18 to 20 per cent of shifts are going unfilled every day due to illness.
To help deal with the shortage, hundreds of nursing students are being put to work and will receive educational credit.
Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta said “corporate” or “out-of-scope staff” are also being shifted to patient care to take care of things like screening, appointments and handing out meals.
COVID numbers continue to set records in Alberta
Hospitalizations continued to rise this past week: up to 1,191 people Friday from 1,131 people on Thursday – numbers previously unprecedented in the pandemic.
The number of patients being treated in intensive care dropped by one person to 107 on Friday. Eight additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours, bringing the province’s death toll to 3,429.
Alberta reported 3,592 lab-confirmed cases on Friday from just over 10,500 tests. The positivity rate was 35.3 per cent. Active cases dropped slightly to 61,615 Friday.
The province has said the reported numbers are much lower than the actual presence of the virus in the community, because of limited access to PCR testing. COVID-19 numbers are not released on the weekend, so the next update is expected early next week.
Stollery spaces repurposed during pandemic before
This isn’t the first time space inside the Stollery has been repurposed during the pandemic.
In December 2020, space was freed inside the hospital’s pediatric ICU for critically ill adult patients during the second wave of COVID.
AHS said the changes at the Stollery is part of the pandemic plan for Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre complex in Edmonton, which is home to the children’s hospital, University of Alberta Hospital, Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute, Clinical Sciences Building and Kaye Edmonton Clinic.
“In these extraordinary times, AHS has had to make significant changes to the way we deliver healthcare,” Williamson said.
“What has remained the same — anyone needing urgent, emergency healthcare will receive it.”
The current Stollery Children’s Hospital was built in 2001, with the majority of services and beds located in the U of A Hospital and the Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre.
The Stollery operates 236 beds and is the largest children’s hospital by bed count west of Toronto. It sees more than 300,000 patient visits per year.
— With files from Emily Mertz, Breanna Karstens-Smith and Caley Gibson, Global News