The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre is being stretched to its absolute limit.
Dr. Mike Weldon, an emergency room physician at the hospital, said the next several weeks will be a crucial test in what level of care can be delivered under an extremely strained system.
“The next couple weeks will be a very significant test of the absolute limit of the system,” he said Thursday.
In a typical year, he said the hospital has about 12 ICU beds and that’s been pushed to 28 recently to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients.
“The ICU is the number one strain point. The second one is the wards – wards are full up with COVID patients – including wards that would normally have surgery patients. Surgeries have been cancelled to allow those wards to look after these people who need oxygen basically,” he said.
“The ICU is the number one stress point. In normal times, our ICU is 12 beds, we were up as high as 28. That’s approaching the maximum they can handle.”
According to Alberta Health Services, the Central zone ICUs are operating at 100 per cent capacity, including 22 COVID-19 patients in the ICU. The Central zone currently has 26 ICU beds, with 14 additional spaces.
Weldon noted the idea that the hallways of the hospital are overflowing with patients or people are being routinely turned away isn’t quite a reality yet, even with those numbers. The level of care that patients are getting, is an entirely different story.
“The general public has this idea that a health system collapse looks like lines of stretchers outside the emergency department. It doesn’t… Resources being stretched to the absolute max, care being provided that is less than what we would consider normal or gold standard,” he said.
Provincially, Alberta has the highest number of patients in ICU since the pandemic began at 310, and 226 of them have COVID-19.
The number of patients in ICU has also increased by 17 per cent in the past seven days.
That leaves Alberta with an ICU capacity of 89 per cent including surge capacity. Without surge spaces, ICU capacity in Alberta would be at 179 per cent.
“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,” AHS said in an email statement Thursday.
In order to deal with those growing numbers, some sort of circuit breaker is desperately needed to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission in communities or hospitals simply won’t be able to keep up, the local physician said.
“It’s hopeless in a sense – we know as a society, even in Alberta what needs to be done to rein this in. In fact, we’ve done it twice over,” he said.
“We cannot continue on this path. It’s unclear even where it will end, other than in human suffering.”
AHS has opened 41 additional ICU surge spaces in the past seven days and 13 since Tuesday across the province, but it’s still not the same level of care.
“A bed today is not the same as a bed a year ago or pre-pandemic. Because the nursing resources and the RT resources are simply spread thinner to look after these people,” Weldon added.
While triage protocols have not been formally enacted by AHS, Weldon said those decisions are going to have to be made in the coming weeks by physicians unless something changes drastically.
“The word moral injury gets batted around a lot. We face that every day. We have to make decisions about do you accept another patient onto another overwhelmed ward or ICU, knowing that they will not receive the same level of care, but they’ll at least receive some care,” he said.
“That’s an awful decision for us to have to make. These decisions are getting made on the daily or hourly basis.”