To prepare for a swell of expected hospitalizations, Premier Jason Kenney says the government is building additional bed capacity and maximizing the workforce with nursing students. (Photo by Government of Alberta)

To prepare for a swell of expected hospitalizations, Premier Jason Kenney says the government is building additional bed capacity and maximizing the workforce with nursing students. (Photo by Government of Alberta)

Alberta adds hospital capacity as COVID-19 Omicron wave nears peak

Premier Jason Kenney says there are early signs Alberta has “reached and surpassed” peak COVID-19 cases in the fifth wave as provincial hospitalizations surge to numbers never seen before.

But Kenney warns that while cases are likely to decline, hospitalizations will continue to increase and put more pressure on an already overwhelmed health system.

He said the province will need to prepare for hundreds of additional patients in hospitals that are diagnosed with COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

“Because of the expectation that we’re going to see potentially hundreds of more non-ICU patients in our hospitals… we are announcing a number of strategies that we have worked on as contingencies if we reached a significant pressure point,” Kenney said in a press conference Thursday.

Minister of Health Jason Copping said the province hit a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday with 1,131 people in hospital infected with the virus and added the next few weeks will be challenging for hospitals in the province.

“The Omicron wave is straining our health system, although differently from the fourth wave. Omicron so far does not threaten our ICU capacity in the way that Delta did, instead, it is straining our hospitals more broadly,” Copping said.

“We know the numbers will continue to rise, from the cases we’ve seen in the past few weeks. We know these cases will peak and come back down. Hospital admission will come back down with them, but we don’t know exactly when.”

With the uncertainty, the province is building bed capacity in non-ICU and ICU settings. Existing beds are being allocated for care and additional beds are being opened in some locations as needed. Starting next week, some beds in the province’s “pandemic response units” will be opened in Calgary and Edmonton.

“They will be there to deal with patients who are ready to be released from hospital but need some additional monitoring,” Kenney said, adding the province is seeing a much shorter period of hospitalization among people diagnosed with COVID-19 in the current wave.

Alberta Health Services will also implement its community response plan, which will help individuals manage mild or moderate COVID-19 symptoms. AHS has also added about 600 student nurses to its team and will work and get education credit for working through this wave.

As those emergency measures are put in place, Kenney said early indications from wastewater analysis show that the province has passed the peak of the COVID-19 Omicron wave. He added that other jurisdictions have hit their peak between four and five weeks after Omicron was first discovered and Alberta is following a similar trend.

“In Alberta, we went past 50 per cent of our COVID-19 cases being identified as Omicron variant on Dec. 16. So we’re now exactly five weeks from that point,” Kenney said, noting the case positivity rate has also stabilized in Alberta.

“So if the variant performs in Alberta like it has in jurisdictions around the world, we can reasonably expect that we may be on the downslope of transmission.”

Kenney also noted there are about 6,300 total non-ICU patients in about 100 hospitals across the province, which is 89 per cent of total capacity.

“Pressure is really being experienced in the non-ICU side of the healthcare system. As we expected, we are not seeing additional significant pressure on intensive care, as we did see during the Delta wave,” Kenney said.

He explained that about 45 per cent of the non-ICU COVID-19 hospital patients are incidental, meaning they were admitted and then subsequently tested positive, while 40 per cent are primary COVID-19 patients, meaning they were admitted with the virus.

Kenney added that he’s not sure when the current restrictions will be lifted, adding “we have to get past this Omicron wave.”

“We have not yet reached the peak of hospitalizations, we have to support our health care workers,” he said.

“If you’re frustrated, I get it. We are all frustrated and tired of this thing.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, noted that it is good news that Health Canada has authorized a new prescription drug product for early treatment of COVID-19. Paxlvoid, the new drug from Pfizer was only recently approved in Canada.

“Our initial supply will be very limited,” Hinshaw said.

The drug will only be available at a small number of pharmacies by prescription in Alberta. The province is working to determine eligibility criteria.

“We want to make sure the drug goes to those who will benefit the most,” she said.