Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping says help is on the way to deal with strain on the province’s two children’s hospitals as they deal with a rise in respiratory illnesses.
A surge in patients at Alberta’s Children’s Hospital prompted Alberta Health Services to redeploy staff there from Rotary Flames House, a facility that provides respite care for chronically and terminally ill children.
Health officials have said the Calgary hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton have been operating at or above 100 per cent of their normal capacity for the past month.
“Help is coming,” Copping said Monday during a news conference on another topic. “Our system is under strain, there’s no doubt about that.
“This is not just unique to Albertans children’s hospital(s). We’re seeing impacts across the entire country.”
Children’s hospitals across Canada have seen a surge in patients, including those affected by COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
Alberta Health Services, which delivers health care in the province, also set up a heated trailer outside the emergency department at Alberta Children’s Hospital last month to help with crowding and weather conditions.
Copping said there are some signs that the situation could soon improve.
“We may be hitting the peak of this current flu that’s circulating,” he said, adding data from schools shows student absentee rates are on a downward trend and wastewater data for COVID-19 shows it’s stable.
Margaret Fullerton, senior operating officer at Alberta’s Children Hospital, said the hospital needs to be prepared for any changes.
“We do look to the east — Eastern Canada — and we know they are continuing to face that surge,” she said, “but we are hopeful that the influenza rates, the RSV rates will drop. We just have to be prepared in case that doesn’t happen.”
Fullerton said the hospital has been operating over capacity for most of November and into December.
“We’ll have times when we are at 120 per cent capacity and other times when we’re at 100 per cent capacity,” she said. “That ebbs and flows throughout the day, throughout the week and throughout the month.
“Right now, we’re still at well over 100 per cent.”
Copping said the province is working to add resources to the health system, but he hadn’t heard of any plan to postpone pediatric surgeries or bring in outside agencies to help.
Fullerton said they have redeployed about 65 full and part-time staff, including those from the respite facility and others from some outpatient clinics, to the hospital.
A total of seven surgeries have been cancelled this week but she said there’s another 160 scheduled to go ahead.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in the legislature that the surge in pediatric cases at Alberta children’s hospitals is alarming.
“These children need our help,” she said during question period.
Notley then asked United Conservative Premier Danielle Smith what she would do to prevent pediatric surgeries from being cancelled.
“We already know that the wait in emergency rooms is way too long,” Smith said in response. “That’s part of the reason I appointed Dr. John Cowell as chief administrator (of Alberta Health Services) so we can be making these decisions in a very rapid way.”
Respiratory illness season typically lasts eight to 12 weeks, said Dr. Christopher Sikora, Alberta Health Services’ medical officer of health for the Edmonton zone. But that’s in “normal times.”
“Now, we have COVID and influenza and other respiratory illnesses. I can’t predict (the duration)… nor the impact it will have on our hospital capacity.
“I do have concern that we aren’t through this yet,” he said in mid November.
Dr. Stephen Freedman, an emergency department physician at Alberta Children’s Hospital, said Friday they’re seeing “an inordinately large number” of kids coming to emergency with fevers, coughs, shortness of breath — predominately RSV and flu, as well as some COVID-19 cases and croup.
The volume of patients the hospital is seeing is between 25 and 30 per cent over normal, Freedman said.
“We are doing everything we can to accommodate and adjust for these volumes, which really is requiring the support of the entire health-care system — through our intensive care unit staff to our pediatric staff to our emergency department, but not just the physicians; the nurses are really at the front line of a lot of this, along with our respiratory therapists and other ancillary health-care providers.”
He said even during the Omicron wave, the hospital didn’t see children as ill as they are now.
“We’re seeing more children require oxygen and other supportive therapy at this time than we did with the COVID surge in the spring. But even then, our ED visit volumes were nowhere near where they are now. That’s primarily because of the circulation and the timing of these viruses — it’s all overlapping.”
— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News