EDMONTON — Alberta Health Services says it's moving around staff to deal with a surging volume of sick children at the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton as a provincial nurses' union called for an indoor mask mandate to help slow the wave of illness.
Carina Majaesic, medical director at the Stollery, told a news conference Tuesday that the hospital has also expanded emergency room and hallway capacity to make room for more beds.
She said strained personnel along with the high number of patients with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, has created the perfect storm.
"We have a reduced and tired workforce and we have more and more acutely ill patients than we normally do," Majaesic said.
AHS said in a release that other potential staffing measures could include mandatory overtime, short-notice schedule changes and cancelled vacations. Majaesic told reporters the hospital has not cancelled vacations yet and hopes to honour those that have been approved.
It said the Stollery pediatric intensive care unit is at about 100 per cent capacity but that it has the ability to add additional beds if required.
AHS said it is identifying staff with experience in emergency, critical or in-patient care, as well other appropriate skills, to boost additional surge capacity at the Stollery.
Majaesic did not say how many physicians have been moved to the areas of greatest need, but numbers are fluctuating with the needs of other areas.
She also said older patients at the Stollery and adult patients that had been treated there temporarily may be moved to a different hospital.
Also Tuesday, the United Nurses of Alberta called for an indoor mask mandate in a letter to Premier Danielle Smith, Health Minister Jason Copping and Dr. Mark Joffe, the new chief medical officer of health.
"It is imperative that our government cease treating this situation as if it were a political inconvenience and address it immediately as the public health crisis that it is," wrote union president Heather Smith.
"The simplest and most effective policy change that could be implemented immediately would be an indoor mask mandate to reduce the spread of influenza, COVID-19 and RSV."
The letter also calls for "more robust reporting of influenza, COVID and RSV statistics," adding that it is important for Albertans to understand the severity of the surge and its effects on staffing.
Steve Buick, a spokesman for Alberta Health, said children’s hospitals across Canada are under the same pressure from an early and severe flu season.
He said the United Conservative Party government is responding through Alberta Health Services by freeing up staff to add capacity.
"We feel for sick kids and their families, and we’re supporting AHS in hiring new staff as fast as possible and taking any other steps needed to make sure kids get the care they need, with the least disruption possible," he said in an email.
Buick said the pressure on children’s hospitals in Alberta has nothing to do with budget or government policy.
He said broader mask mandates are an emergency measure that no province has in place.
"We’re not in a state of public health emergency and we cannot live in one forever, or whenever we have a wave of flu or other respiratory infections."
Majaesic told reporters that the children's hospital is preparing for even worse circumstances, as the highest surges are typically in January and February.
"Let's plan for the worst here and plan as if we're going to get that surge that we normally get in January (and) February and be ready for it."
Majaesic also said that the surge of RSV began earlier than in previous years, starting before December. It usually begins after Christmas.
"It started much earlier. There are some jurisdictions where they had RSV in the summer, which we normally don't see."
She said that while the hospital has seen cases of influenza plateau, RSV has been steadily increasing with children having worse symptoms than in past years.
Majaesic advises parents with sick children to call 811 and either visit a walk-in clinic or their family doctor before coming to the hospital unless their child is struggling to breathe or keep down liquids.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2022.
Angela Amato, The Canadian Press