EDMONTON — Staff in Alberta hospitals are treating more people in intensive care units than at any other time in the province's history, officials warn, adding that hospitalizations for COVID-19 are particularly high for people in rural areas.
Dr. Verna Yiu, president and chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services, said more than 240 patients are in intensive care, including 186 with COVID-19.
"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 Monday during a COVID-19 update with the premier and the province's chief medical officer.
"The threat of serious illness is real. We are seeing more people needing ICU care, particularly younger adults with fewer underlying problems."
Capacity would have been surpassed had the province not opened an additional 106 ICU beds on top of its pre-pandemic capacity of about 170, Yiu said.
The province can expect to see the need for more beds continue to grow, she said, since hospitalization numbers lag about two weeks behind changes in infection rates.
If needed, up to 425 ICU beds could be made available in Alberta by repurposing isolation or operating recovery rooms, "but we hope never to use these units," Yiu said.
"Our biggest current challenge is staffing these additional spaces, and this is certainly more difficult than the first and second waves," she said.
"ICU teams are doing incredible work, but they're exhausted. They have been doing this for more than 15 months."
Yiu noted that 14 patients have been transferred to Edmonton hospital ICUs in the past week from northern Alberta communities such as Fort McMurray, Lac La Biche and Cold Lake because of issues of hospital capacity in the health zone.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, said the idea that the pandemic is affecting mostly urban areas is a myth.
Rural areas account for 12 of the 15 locations with the highest active COVID-19 case rates, she said.
And, since February, rural Albertans have been 26 per cent more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people who live in urban centres.
"None of this is to stigmatize rural Albertans or to suggest that any one part of our province is to blame," Hinshaw said.
"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 the northern and central health zones have had the highest hospitalization rates per capita since the beginning of May. Northern Alberta, in particular, has had hospitalization rates more than double those of Edmonton and Calgary, she said.
Health officials reported 721 new COVID-19 cases in the province and three new deaths Monday. There were 21,288 active cases in the province and 678 people in hospital.
Premier Jason Kenney said overall transmission is going down, but public health restrictions are still needed to safeguard the health-care system and to keep the more contagious COVID-19 variants at bay.
"If we did not take action, we would have to start looking at cancelling even thousands more surgeries and triaging patients — that means denying some people care and making the decision on who gets intensive care, for example," Kenney said.
"I can't imagine that there is a single person out there who wants to test out this scenario."
The premier has come under fire from some members of his party over restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Last month, 16 legislature members wrote an open letter to Kenney, saying the rules were needlessly restrictive and infringed on personal freedoms. Many of them represented rural areas.
But the premier stressed Monday that the latest COVID-19 briefing wasn't about politics.
"It doesn't matter where you live, your life is invaluable and we must take reasonable measures to protect lives wherever people happen to live," Kenney said.
He said the emergency management cabinet committee will discuss reopening strategies this week and next.
"We will certainly be tying reopening in large part to the percentage of the population that gets vaccinated," Kenney said. "We'll also be looking at hospitalizations, at least early in the reopening phase, in the reopening plan."
Early this week, more than 50 per cent of eligible Albertans will have had at least one vaccine dose, Kenney said.
Another 1.2 million doses are scheduled to arrive this month and there are currently 800,000 appointments in the system, he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2021.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press