Doctors and nurses in Alberta's intensive care units are currently treating more than 240 people — including 186 with COVID-19 — by far the highest number of ICU patients the province's health-care system has ever dealt with, says the head of Alberta Health Services.
Of those ICU patients, 222 are currently on ventilators, more than half of whom are COVID-19 patients, Dr. Verna Yiu, president and chief executive officer of AHS, said Monday at a news conference.
"That is easily the most ICU patients that we have ever seen in our health-care system and definitely higher than what we have seen in waves one and two," Yiu said.
Over the past month, the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU beds has more than doubled, Yiu said. The influx would have exceeded Alberta's pre-pandemic capacity of 170 ICU beds if the province had not opened another 106 — 54 in Edmonton, 40 in Calgary and six each in the north and central health zones.
Up to 425 ICU beds could be made available, by opening unstaffed beds and repurposing clinical areas such as isolation rooms or operating recovery rooms, she said.
"Our biggest current challenge, though, is staffing these additional spaces, and this is certainly more difficult than the first and second waves."
ICU teams are doing incredible work but they're exhausted, she said. "They have been doing this for more than 15 months, through three significant waves."
Hospitalization numbers lag about two weeks behind the trend of new cases, meaning Alberta can expect to see the need for beds continuing to grow in the coming days, she said.
"The threat of serious illness is real," Yiu said. "We are seeing more people needing ICU care, particularly younger adults with fewer underlying problems."
Rural not necessarily safer
Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who also spoke at Monday's news conference, emphasized that the pandemic is not confined to the province's large cities.
Rural areas count for 12 of 15 locations with the highest active-case rates, Hinshaw said.
"The bottom line is that right now you were at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in many rural parts of our province than if you were living in a big city."
Hospitalization statistics tell a similar story, she said.
Since February, people living in rural areas have been 26 per cent more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those in urban areas, she said.
And since the beginning of May, north and central health zones have had higher hospitalization rates per capita compared to any other region of the province. "The north zone, in particular, has had hospitalization rates more than double those of Edmonton, Calgary or south zones," she said.
Vaccines the ticket to reopening
The emergency management cabinet committee will continue to discuss reopening strategies this week and next, Kenney said.
"We will certainly be tying reopening in large part to the percentage of the population that gets vaccinated," the premier said. "We'll also be looking at hospitalizations, at least early in the reopening phase, in the reopening plan.
Kenney said he wants to convince reluctant Albertans that their "ticket to freedom" lies in vaccinations.
More than 2.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered, with 328,414 Albertans fully immunized, he said.
By early this week, Kenney said more than 50 per cent of eligible Albertans will have had at least one dose.
Another 1.2 million doses are scheduled to arrive over the next four weeks and there are currently 800,000 appointments in the system, he said.
Active case counts have recently begun to decline. On Sunday, Alberta reported 1,140 new COVID-19 cases, with 22,280 active cases across the province. There were 647 people in hospital and there have been 2,143 deaths.