Rising COVID cases are already exacerbating chronic bed and staff shortages at Red Deer hospital, say strained doctors, who fear what this fall and winter will bring.
Nineteen patients were left waiting in the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s emergency department on Tuesday for beds to free up on the wards, said emergency room physician Dr. Mike Weldon.
He noted the hospital’s 300 beds are routinely 95 per cent full. This means emergency patients can sometimes wait a couple of days to get onto a ward — which is why people coming in with new emergencies have sometimes had to wait eight hours or more to be seen, he added.
Alberta Health Services stated, “Unfortunately, the high number of seriously ill patients we are seeing right now has resulted in some longer wait times for patients to be admitted to the hospital from the emergency department. Current data shows an average wait of about 15.78 hours.”
The situation is so dire Weldon said he’s occasionally had to treat seriously ill patients,who have suffered heart attacks or who need blood transfusions, right in the emergency waiting room because there is just nowhere else to put them.
The Intensive Care Unit is, meanwhile, already nearly full of mostly unvaccinated COVID patients — which makes it tight for patients with other serious illnesses to get in, said Weldon. He urges people to get vaccinated before the highly contagious Delta variant really starts spreading this winter.
Fifteen beds are now open in ICU, stated Alberta Health Services, with the ability to add more if needed. Ten of those beds are now occupied by patients with COVID.
Meanwhile, recuperating patients are routinely being transferred from Red Deer hospital to smaller hospitals around Central Alberta because their beds are needed by more seriously ill patients. Dr. Kym Jim at the hospital is concerned about what this could mean for their continuity of care.
Alberta Health Services stated as of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, one patient was transferred to a rural hospital.
Jim noted it made the provincial news when Grand Prairie hospital transferred six patients out recently because of overcapacity, yet this kind of thing is happening almost daily at Red Deer hospital and he wants central Albertans to be aware.
As a member of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, Jim said the COVID crisis has worsened hospital shortages that have been known to the provincial government for more than a decade.
“It’s a culmination. It’s been building for many weeks and now a number of things have come together, including rising COVID numbers,” he added.
The hospital’s overcapacity issues are hard on staff, as well as patients, said Weldon, because “you have people who have dedicated their lives to caring for others and they are unable to care for them the way they need to be cared for. It’s very demoralizing.”
Weldon said 18 nurses left his department since May. Many either retired or moved to other departments where capacity shortages have not been felt as acutely. “These are experienced nurses, people you want to keep around…”
Without adequate staff, some already scarce hospital beds can‘t be opened to patients — which further adds to the strain, said Weldon. He noted many doctors also left Red Deer hospital and it’s been hard to attract new physicians because of the facility’s well known lack of capacity.
Last week, an operating room doctor expressed frustration about the cancellation of hundreds of non-urgent surgeries.
Meanwhile, preparations for a $100 million Red Deer hospital expansion is still in the first stage with a business case expected to be completed this fall.
In response to concerns, Alberta Health Services acknowledged on Wednesday that “Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is currently experiencing capacity challenges, due in large part to rising COVID cases throughout the region.
“We are currently seeing a high number of seriously ill patients, which has resulted in some longer wait times for patients to be admitted to the hospital from the emergency department.”
AHS stated that besides recently opening three additional ICU beds at the hospital for a total of 15, a second dedicated COVID unit was also opened, “and 26 COVID positive patients are being treated on those two units.
“We have enacted overcapacity protocols throughout the hospital to improve access and ensure spaces are available for those who need it.”
AHS confirmed that transferring Red Deer hospital patients out to outlying hospitals is not unusual, “but more a process that we use to ease demand and improve access when demand is high.”
This helps provide care for patients who need the specialized services offered at Red Deer hospital: “We have taken similar steps during other waves of the pandemic. The Delta variant is different than what we have seen before. It is much more transmissible, and is proving more difficult to contain.”
AHS stated it is doing all it can, amid significant COVID pressures, to ensure patients continue to get the care they need.
“We need everyone’s help in protecting each other, and our health-care system. We strongly urge all eligible Albertans to get immunized as quickly as possible, and to continue following preventative measures such as staying home when sick.”