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19 of 50 new ICU beds announced in Alberta budget already open, staffed: Premier Kenney

Click to play video: 'Alberta opens new ICU beds, doctors say more needs to be done to attract staff' Alberta opens new ICU beds, doctors say more needs to be done to attract staff
WATCH: The province has added 19 of the 50 new ICU beds it recently promised in Alberta. But As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, doctors say more needs to be done to attract staff to hospitals that are hurting the most.

Premier Jason Kenney says 19 of the 50 new ICU beds promised in Alberta’s spring budget are already open and staffed in hospitals across the province.

In the 2022 budget tabled earlier this year, the province committed $300 million over the next three years to open and staff 50 new permanent ICU beds across Alberta to help build frontline health-care capacity.

Read more: Alberta adding up to 50 ICU beds to health system this year

In an update at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre Friday morning, Kenney said the new beds will help add capacity to Alberta’s strained health-care system. He said while the system was strained before the COVID-19 pandemic, the last two years showcased that the Canadian health-care system does not have adequate capacity.

“Period. Full stop,” Kenney said.

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Click to play video: 'Concerns being raised about number of nurses needed in Alberta' Concerns being raised about number of nurses needed in Alberta
Concerns being raised about number of nurses needed in Alberta – Feb 28, 2022

Kenney said the additional 50 baseline permanent ICU beds is the largest increase Alberta’s health-care system has ever seen.

Health Minister Jason Copping said the 19 new beds are located in Calgary, Edmonton, St. Albert, Grande Prairie and Lethbridge.

Dr. Dan Zuege, clinical department head of Critical Care Medicine Calgary, said during the height of the pandemic, Alberta Health Services went through a “herculean effort” to increase its capacity from 173 beds to 376 beds.

Currently, Zeuge said Alberta is operating 212 general ICU beds across the province, which includes the 19 beds announced Friday and 20 surge beds. Of those 212 beds, 162 are full.

“The addition of 50 new spaces to our baseline capacity is wonderful news,” Zuege said.

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Read more: Alberta doctors say province needs to do more than expand capacity

Copping said AHS has committed to opening the remaining 31 ICU beds by September.

“Our hospitals are under real strain right now,” Copping said, adding many in Calgary and Edmonton are running at over 100 per cent capacity. “The system needs more capacity.

“The pandemic is obviously a big factor in the surge of patients we are seeing right now.”

Copping said getting past the current wave of COVID-19 will help ease pressures and get things back to normal, but also added the “normal we had before, quite frankly, wasn’t good enough.”

Read more: Alberta hospitals under ‘significant pressures’ as 6th COVID-19 wave wears on

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said Friday’s announcement failed to address the “deepening crisis” within Alberta’s health-care system.

The NDP pointed to Alberta communities where hospitals are partially closed due to staff shortages, ambulance wait times and the Red Deer Hospital diverting surgeries. The party also pointed to “dangerously long wait times” for children at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton and the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary.

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“Thanks to Jason Kenney and the UCP, we don’t have enough staff to operate the beds we already have, or the ambulances we already have, or the primary care clinics we already have,” Phillips said.

“Albertans cannot trust the UCP with their health care. We need a new government. An NDP government will restart the relationship with health-care professionals, we will provide the resources they need at the front lines and we will strengthen the public health-care system that Alberta families rely on.”

Dr. Kym Jim is an internal medicine specialist and nephrologist at the Red Deer hospital. He said he’s never seen shortages like they’re currently experiencing.

“The challenge we have in Red Deer as a whole is that the hospital can’t meet the needs of the local community, and as a result, citizens that are residents of Red Deer are being sent to hospitals outside of Red Deer in order for us to have capacity,” he said.

“The biggest challenge that we are seeing right now in Red Deer is that of staffing. So whether that be staffing for nurses on the wards and filling shifts… or staffing within the internal medicine group and surgical groups within Red Deer.”

On top of diverting surgeries over the past several weeks, Jim said they’ve had what are called “blanks in call” in internal medicine. This happens when they don’t have enough physicians to cover the schedule.

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“One of the main problems that we have is that we do not have enough clinical support services to support physicians in their roles,” he said.

“In other jurisdictions, there are basically groups of physicians, clinical assistants, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, residents, medical students – all of whom help the doctors on call. In Red Deer we have a very limited few of those so as a result, the physicians can’t deliver the care because we don’t have enough support services.”

Also in Alberta’s spring budget, the province allotted $1.8 billion for the renewal and expansion of Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

Read more: Alberta budget includes ‘historic’ $1.8B investment to expand Red Deer hospital

Jim said the bed announcement from the province is a major step forward, and added the beds and other expanded services announced for the hospital can’t come soon enough.

“Really, what is needed specific to the Red Deer situation is almost a task force. We almost need a government-derived task force to say, ‘This is what needs to happen in Red Deer to get things back on track and to get the right services here.’

“We need something that will happen immediately that will solve some of the problems.

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“To imagine that Red Deer is going to continue to send citizens of central Alberta to communities around Red Deer… over the next many years is ridiculous and certainly a concern for patient care.”

On top of this, Jim said they’re seeing a “pandemic-weary workforce.”

“People are saying, ‘I just can’t work at this level anymore.’ I think you are seeing work-life balance entering into that equation,” he said. “It is just not viable in some places for some services to be doing this kind of work over the long term.”

While adding beds is one thing, both the premier and health minister admit they’re nothing without the staff that keep the beds in operation.

“The big challenge is staff,” Kenney said.

Read more: COVID-19: 70 new deaths reported to Alberta Health as hospitalizations drop

Copping said AHS continues to hire critical-care staff needed to operate the beds, the majority of which have been pulled in from other areas of the hospital system.

He said about 90 per cent of the nursing grads in Alberta last year have already been hired. In addition, AHS is working with students to bring them into the system for real-life work experience.

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Dr. Sid Viner, vice president and medical director of clinical operations with AHS, said a program is also being created to train health-care aids specifically, who are very much needed across Alberta.

In addition, AHS is working to train and get credentials for internationally trained people living in Alberta.

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