The third wave of COVID-19 in Alberta has led to more people needing intensive care than at any other time in Alberta’s history.
On Monday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services (AHS) president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the healthcare system is under significant stress, more than at any other point during the pandemic.
“We’re currently experiencing several record highs across the healthcare system,” Yiu said.
They said 678 people are being treated in hospitals with COVID-19 and there are 186 COVID-19 patients in the ICU, which is six times more than the record for ICU admissions for the flu. Overall, there are 241 patients being treated in the ICU, with 55 patients needing intensive care for other conditions aside from COVID-19.
“That is easily the most ICU patients that we’ve ever seen in our health-care system and definitely higher than what we’ve seen in waves one and two,” Yiu said.
The province currently also has its highest number of patients on ventilators, with 222 patients needing breathing support, more than half of whom are COVID-19 patients.
“Over the past month, the number of people with COVID-19 needing ICU care has increased by more than 100 per cent,” Yiu said.
If the province hadn’t opened an additional 106 intensive care beds at the beginning of the pandemic, Alberta would be at 140 per cent of its usual ICU capacity, with about 170 beds normally across all health zones.
And COVID-19 hospitalization rates lag behind other indicators, so the number of people needing care from the health system is still expected to grow in the coming weeks even as cases begin to taper off.
While COVID-19 cases surge, AHS continues to battle staffing challenges. By opening up unstaffed beds and repurposingother areas in the hospital, Alberta can eke out a total of 425 ICU spaces for patients – but staffing those beds is another challenge entirely.
Hinshaw said the province is seeing more young people needing intensive care, particularly younger adults with fewer underlying health problems.
“When you look at severe outcomes, 40 per cent of those who have been hospitalized since the beginning of February have been under the age of 50, including 12 per cent who are below the age of 30,” Hinshaw said.
Since February, 32 per cent of those who have been admitted to the ICU have been under the age of 50, while seven per cent have been younger than 30.
While younger Albertans are getting sick in this third wave, rural Albertans have also been seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases since February.
Kenney and Hinshaw said COVID-19 isn’t just in Alberta’s biggest cities, and right now 12 of the top 15 active case rates in the province are in rural communities.
"The bottom line is that right now you are 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,” Hinshaw said.
Since February, hospitalization rates are 26 per cent higher and ICU rates are 30 per cent higher in rural areas than urban ones.
Since the beginning of May, the North and Central zones have had higher hospitalization rates per capita than any other region of the province. The North Zone in particular has had hospitalization rates more than double those of Edmonton and Calgary.
“None of this is to stigmatize rural Albertans or to suggest that any one part of our province is to blame. This is not an urban versus rural issue. It is clear that COVID-19 is spreading and having an impact everywhere in our province,” Hinshaw said.
As a result of high case rates in the North Zone right now, patients are being transported to Edmonton hospitals due to capacity constraints at hospitals in their zone.
Since May 9, there have been 14 patients requiring ICU care transferred from the North Zone to Edmonton due to capacity pressures, which include five transfers from Fort McMurray, three from Lac La Biche, three from Cold Lake and three Grande Prairie and St. Paul.
Twelve of those 14 transfers had COVID-19.
Yiu said patient transfers are not unusual, but they are typically less frequent. In February and March, when COVID-19 numbers were lower, an average of three ICU patients were transferred per week from the North Zone to Edmonton.
“While patient transfers are safe, and always based on clinical need, they have an obvious impact on those patients and their loved ones,” Yiu said.
Right now, the province has 21,288 active cases of the virus, with another 721 reported on Monday out of 7,002 tests, for a positivity rate of 10.3 per cent.
Five more deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the past 24 hours.
The "R" value, or how many infections each infected person causes, from May 10 to May 16 sat at 0.84 across the province, with the Edmonton Zone at 0.86, the Calgary Zone at 0.82 and the rest of the province sitting at 0.85.
Although hospitalizations are high, COVID-19 new cases are starting to decline and soon the province will start reopening.
"Thanks to the efforts and sacrifices made by millions of Albertans, we now see case numbers coming down quickly in almost all parts of the province," Kenney said.
The premier said the province will announce its plan to reopen soon, and this time reopening will be tied in to vaccinations and hospitalization rates.
“We are very close to releasing our plan. We'll be discussing it later this week at our emergency management cabinet committee (meeting) and then again early next week,” Kenney said.
On Monday, the province was reporting a first-dose vaccination rate of 49 per cent of the population over the age of 12 and expected to hit 50 per cent by the end of the day.
Kenney said there are 1.2 million doses of vaccine scheduled to arrive over the next four weeks with 800,000 appointments in the system.
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette