Worst single day: Alberta announces 30 new COVID-19 deaths for total of 790

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EDMONTON — Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says 30 more patients have died from COVID-19 — the province’s highest daily death toll since the pandemic began.

"This is a heartbreaking figure," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday at her daily virtual news conference.

"If anyone still needs reminding of the seriousness of this virus ... this is it."

The death total now stands at 790. There were 763 COVID-19 patients in hospital Thursday, with 138 of them in intensive care.

Hinshaw also announced 394 health-care workers had received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since immunizations began Tuesday. More doses are to arrive in the coming weeks.

The province has been dealing with high COVID-19 caseloads for weeks. There were 1,571 new infections Thursday.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said a field hospital is being set up on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton and will be operational by January, but added it would remain a last-ditch scenario.

He said the temporary 100-bed facility would only be necessary if current hospital limits, including an extra 2,250 beds being readied provincewide for COVID-19 patients, were reached.

“This is a contingency plan,” Shandro said during a news conference in which he announced the expansion of rapid COVID-19 testing.

He said a decision to use the field hospital would be up to Alberta Health Services, which is tasked with delivering front-line care.

The Canadian Red Cross is helping set up the site inside the Universiade Pavilion. The cavernous, multi-purpose sports facility is most often referred to as the Butterdome because of its rectangular shape and yellow exterior.

The field hospital would be used for non-critical patients and patients who are recovering from COVID-19, but are unlikely to spread the novel coronavirus.

Alberta already has a field hospital outside the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary. It's currently being used to allow for extra physical distancing for treatment of emergency care patients.

Edmonton and the surrounding area have been particularly hard hit. To preserve emergency response in the region, about 60 per cent of non-urgent surgeries — those that require a hospital stay — are on hold. Diagnostic imaging and other clinical support services are being cut by up to 40 per cent.

Overall, intensive care beds are being added or opened up by moving non-critical patients to beds in continuing-care centres.

Shandro said hospitals can expect the high numbers to continue through the end of the year, even with vaccinations and tighter restrictions that have closed down community and public spaces and sharply curtailed retail activity,

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said creating extra hospital space is prudent, but she added the field hospital is a consequence of the United Conservative government's failure to take steps much earlier to reverse the surge in the second wave — a surge predicted as far back as the spring.

She noted that when news of the field hospital was first leaked to CBC News weeks ago, Shandro insisted it was part of preliminary discussions on future possibilities.

Now, said Notley, the field hospital is becoming a reality, but Shandro still says it’s a last resort.

"I imagine (Shandro) will keep saying that right up to the moment when the first patients arrive, perhaps even after,” said Notley.

The government has also been rolling out rapid testing to supplement conventional tests for COVID-19. About 1,000 people have already received the rapid tests, with 76 testing positive.

Shandro said rapid testing will be expanded to high-risk long-term care homes and designated supported living facilities, first in Edmonton, then Calgary and later to points outside the two cities.

The rapid test is not as sensitive as the conventional one, but results can be determined within minutes rather than hours or days. The test allows patients to be isolated faster and reduces the chance of spread to others.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press