Uptick in stroke cases adding pressure to U of A hospital coping with surge in COVID-19 cases: neurologist

·3 min read

An Edmonton neurologist says the University of Alberta Hospital has seen an uptick in stroke patients in recent weeks as the province's health-care system continues to cope with the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Dr. Jennifer McCombe, associate clinical professor with the University of Alberta's neurology division, said her unit has seen more strokes in people of all ages, though it remains more common in older people.

In an interview Saturday, McCombe said research into the connection between COVID-19 and stroke has led to mixed results. But she is concerned by reports of people testing positive for the virus who are getting clots in veins, particularly in younger people who are normally less likely to experience stroke.

"We know, in general, that people are more likely to form clots with COVID," she said.

But McCombe said while increased cases may be adding some pressure on neurology staff, the general strain on the health-care system isn't helping.

"In truth, I think it's probably a combination of both. I think we are probably seeing some neurologic trouble associated with COVID, in addition to just all our regular busy-ness on top of a strained health-care system where we're trying to help out," she said.

University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry
University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

McCombe said she and her colleagues in neurology have picked up work from other units, like internal medicine and critical care, where staff have faced an influx in COVID-19 patients. She said care is also being affected because many of the nurses from outpatient clinics for neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis have been redeployed to hospitals to help cope with the pandemic.

She said for the time being, putting in extra hours to try to help deal with the pandemic is manageable, but it creates a backlog — for example, she said that means her multiple sclerosis patients aren't necessarily getting access to the care they need. And when the acute demands of the pandemic subside, neurologists like McCombe who have existing patients and long wait lists may be called upon to treat people with lasting neurological effects from COVID-19.

"We can all hunker down and work really hard for a short period of time, but then after that we're going to have be dealing with people who potentially have longer term health issues related to this who are going to require increased care, that might be developing issues that we're not even aware of yet or more chronic issues," she said.

McCombe added that more resources may be needed to put in the infrastructure to care for people if long-term issues caused by COVID-19 persist.

She said she's gotten a lot of questions about "post-COVID syndrome," which is something they'll need to consider and learn more about, but provides yet another reason to take steps to avoid transmitting and contracting the virus.

Signs of stroke

McCombe said early in the pandemic, another area of concern was that people experiencing signs of a stroke were not going to a hospital out of fear about COVID-19. She said if someone is experiencing a sudden change in their body's ability to do something -- such as suddenly being unable to speak, see, feel or move normally -- they should go to the hospital right away.

"If anybody has a sudden change in the way their body works and it's affecting their ability to do these very important things, it doesn't matter what age you are, you need to present to hospital," she said.