Alberta could see record COVID-19 hospitalizations within 14 days, early warning system projections suggest

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Non-ICU hospitalizations in Alberta peaked at 868 on Sept. 27, provincial data shows. The Alberta Health Services COVID-19 early warning system predicts that figure will be eclipsed within two weeks. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters - image credit)
Non-ICU hospitalizations in Alberta peaked at 868 on Sept. 27, provincial data shows. The Alberta Health Services COVID-19 early warning system predicts that figure will be eclipsed within two weeks. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters - image credit)

Projections from Alberta Health Services' COVID-19 early warning system suggest the current wave could send more people to hospital than at any point in the pandemic, within a couple of weeks.

A graph showing the inpatient hospital bed forecast — excluding ICU beds — from the AHS COVID-19 early warning system was leaked onto social media Friday afternoon, AHS has confirmed to CBC News.

The graph shows the actual number of hospitalizations that have occurred so far, and three potential scenarios — low, medium and high. The projections showed 14 days into the future.

Non-ICU COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alberta peaked at 868 on Sept. 27, provincial data shows. But each projected scenario suggests significantly more Albertans will be sent to hospital in the current wave.

As of Jan. 6, non-ICU hospitalizations sat at 440, data shows. The early warning system's low scenario predicts that figure will more than double to 968 in two weeks' time.

The medium scenario suggests the number of non-ICU patients could reach 1,278; the high scenario suggests non-ICU hospitalizations could reach 1,541.

The early warning system is a tool AHS uses to predict potential demand on the province's health-care system and allow it to plan for those changes in demand, according to a statement sent to CBC News through a spokesperson.

"AHS is continually monitoring and planning for all eventualities to ensure we can continue to care for patients, and keep Albertans safe," the statement said.

"Plans are in place to increase acute care capacity, with appropriate staffing and resources should it be needed. The current projected need can be met."

The best way to prevent hospitalizations is to follow public health restrictions and guidelines, staying home when sick and to get vaccinated, the statement adds.

The projections are significant, but there is somewhat of a silver lining if one were to look at modelling from other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, said Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, a critical care specialist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton.

"[The rise in hospitalizations has] really been on their better expectations curve than their worst case expectations," Chowdhury told CBC News.

"They're definitely seeing a rise in hospitalizations, but not in the severe scenarios. So that gives me some hope, at least, as to how things are going to be here."

Calgary zone forecast

Non-ICU COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Calgary zone could also surpass the peaks seen in the fourth wave, according to a PowerPoint presentation obtained by CBC News.

The PowerPoint, dated Jan. 4, was an update on the pandemic's fifth wave sent to emergency room doctors in Calgary. Among other things, it showed forecasts — low, medium and high scenarios — of both non-ICU and ICU admissions from the AHS' early warning system.

Non-ICU hospitalizations reached just over 200 in mid-to-late-September, according to the PowerPoint. At the time the PowerPoint was circulated, there were 156 non-ICU COVID-19 patients in the Calgary zone.

At the time, the low scenario suggested non-ICU patients could increase to 198 within two weeks, staying below the peaks seen during the previous wave.

The medium scenario suggested admissions could increase to 261; the high scenario predicted there could be 314 non-ICU patients within that period. Both of those figures exceed the peaks of the fourth wave, at least.

In theory, there are 2,400 inpatient beds available in the Calgary zone, when hospitals have full staffing, the PowerPoint said.

The significant spread of the Omicron variant is impacting staffing levels across Canada, however, as many health-care workers are either testing positive for COVID-19 or having to self-isolate.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of ICU strain yet, the PowerPoint said.

ICU admissions are expected to stay relatively low compared to the levels seen in the fourth wave.

At the time, the high scenario suggested there could be 36 patients in the ICU within two weeks — significantly less from the more than 90 ICU patients seen around the beginning of October.

This would align with recent research that suggests the Omicron variant tends to result in less severe outcomes for those who contract it, compared to the Delta variant.

Health-care workers feeling burnt out: Chowdhury

Nearly 22 months into the pandemic, many health-care workers are feeling stressed during the fifth wave, Chowdhury said.

The Omicron variant is more transmissible than previous strains of the novel coronavirus, meaning some people are worried they could contract the virus outside of work, during their day-to-day life. Meanwhile, those who do not test positive are taking on more work until their colleagues recover from COVID-19 or return from self-isolation, he explained.

Plus, society still hasn't returned to normal, he added.

"We've been at this for now for about two years," Chowdhury said. "In general, everyone in the health-care system is burnt out. And now there's a serious chance that not only are we burnt out, but people are going to get sick as well."

That said, Chowdhury is hopeful that, if Albertans get past Omicron, the worst of the pandemic will have passed.

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