Spiking COVID-19 numbers will put more pressure on Red Deer hospital’s intensive care unit, already running at near-capacity.
Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is treating 54 COVID patients, including 18 in an ICU that has been expanded to 22 beds from 12, to cope with the influx of seriously ill patients.
As well, patients are increasingly being transferred out of Red Deer to other facilities. In one 24-hour period earlier this week, four critically ill patients were transferred out of Central zone to hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton, says Alberta Health Service (AHS).
Red Deer’s Dr. Kym Jim said all are concerned about what sort of pressure the pandemic’s fourth wave may bring on a hospital that has long been struggling to meet regional needs. He is a member of the Society for Hospital Expansion in Central Alberta, which is pushing the province to boost the size of the hospital as soon as possible.
While recent case numbers are not encouraging there was some positive news on Tuesday. Red Deer jumped by 102 cases over the weekend to 597 on Monday, but cases fell to 573 on Tuesday.
“I think what you’re seeing with hospital staff across the board, is that people are very concerned and are very weary, as is the population,” said Jim.
“I think people just wonder where is the end in sight for this surge we’re in right now. I don’t think anyone has an answer to that. And that part of things is very concerning.
“It is concerning because everyone realizes that ICU resources are finite. What happens when we got to a point where we get to a point where we truly have no ability to expand? What happens when Edmonton and Calgary run out of ICU beds?
“We don’t have the answers to that at this point.”
For more than a year, some local residents who need hospital care — but not necessarily at the level Red Deer hospital is equipped to provide — have been transferred to other hospitals in the region.
“We had troubles as a whole for the hospital with capacity for years,” said Jim. “But this issue has been pushed massively by COVID.”
Doctors and nurses working in Red Deer hospital’s ICU are alarmed by the spiking caseloads.
“I think we’re all incredibly concerned,” said Red Deer ICU physician Dr. Adam Hall.
“At this point, we haven’t had that difficult discussion of triage. But that is very much looming in everybody’s mind that we may get to that point soon.
“By triage I mean we may have not have enough ICU spaces for the patients coming in, so we may have to make difficult decision on who gets critical care and who doesn’t.”
How triage would be handled if it becomes necessary is expected to come up in an emergency provincial ICU meeting Hall was to participate in with other health providers on Tuesday evening.
Hall said a toll is being taken on doctors and the team of specially trained ICU nurses. It is a team that once oversaw a 12-bed ICU — although it frequently surpassed that — but could find itself faced with patients in as many as 22 beds.
To manage patient loads, nurses have been required to work mandatory overtime and longer shifts and routinely care for two ICU patients instead of the usual one.
“Our team has just been pushing it really hard for the last 18 months,” said Hall.
AHS acknowledged this week that hospitals are under strain as they try to cope with rising COVID numbers.
“Our hospitals are experiencing significant capacity challenges due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 patients needing care. In some cases, patients have been transferred from one healthcare facility to another, to ensure that they can continue to get the care they need,” says AHS, adding transfers only occur when appropriate and safe for patients.
As of Monday, 286 ICU beds are open in Alberta, including 113 additional spaces. AHS has opened 37 additional ICU surge spaces across the province in the past seven days.
“Without the additional surge spaces, provincial ICU capacity would be 148 per cent,” says AHS. “The number of patients in ICU has increased by 19 per cent in the past seven days.”
”AHS continues to do all it can to ensure we have enough ICU capacity to meet patient demand, including opening additional spaces and redeploying staff.
“The pressure right now on our staff, physicians and resources, is significant. We cannot overstate enough our gratitude for our colleagues who continue to work tirelessly 18 months into the pandemic.”