Alberta has made some major progress in the fight against COVID-19, with the number of daily new cases dropping significantly since the province reached its highest numbers during the pandemic so far in December.
Alberta’s positivity rate is trending downward too.
But in Calgary, the COVID-19 situation in hospital intensive care units has never been more dire.
“We’re actually at the highest number of ICU patients with COVID(-19) that we’ve had in Calgary during the pandemic thus far,” critical care epidemiologist Dr. Kirsten Fiest said.
“That’s definitely a concern that our health system is under strain even though we’re seeing a large drop in cases in the community.”
According to Alberta Health Services, ICUs in Calgary on Wednesday had 55 COVID-19 patients.
ICUs in the Calgary zone have been between 86 to 90 per cent full over the past week, with that percentage including the 30 additional beds added last year to keep up with climbing hospitalizations.
“We are still… right in the thick of it,” said Calgary ICU physician Dr. Daniel Niven. “Our ICUs are under a considerable amount of pressure.”
Both doctors said there are several factors that contribute to the high number of COVID-19 ICU admissions.
On average, COVID-19 patients are in the ICU longer than those fighting other health issues.
Almost all COVID-19 patients in the ICU have lung failure so severe they need a ventilator to stay alive and require care from multiple specialists.
COVID-19 patients who are admitted to ICUs tend to stay in intensive care for 10 days to two weeks or longer on average, according to Niven, depending on how far that lung failure has come along.
There’s also a lag time between showing signs and symptoms and the novel coronavirus doing enough damage to require intensive care. So even though community case numbers are down now, that ripple effect won’t be felt in hospitalizations and ICU numbers right away.
“And there may be other factors at play that we don’t yet understand, that time may help us understand, if this trend continues,” Niven said.
While Calgary is seeing record-high numbers of COVID-19 ICU patients, in Edmonton there’s been a significant drop.
“In the Edmonton zone, there are currently 44 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 in ICU,” AHS said in a statement.
“This is down by more than half from the peak of 105 on Dec. 20.”
Doctors said it’s hard to pinpoint why there’s such a difference between the two cities, but since every patient is different, so too is their reaction to COVID-19.
While many across Alberta are anxiously waiting for current public health restrictions to be eased, doctors are warning that the province is not out of the woods yet.
“The message is that we really need to see the decreased case counts in the community to translate into decreased hospitalizations and (a) decrease in ICU admissions so that strain — especially in Calgary — (will) go down,” Fiest said.
“Although it would be nice to be able to see things within society open up to a greater degree than they already have, I would worry with the amount of pressure we’re currently feeling that if that were to bring in any additional case volume, then we would be under even more strain, which I don’t think, at this point, we would be in a position to handle, or at least handle well,” Niven said.
Still, doctors say Alberta is heading in the right direction when it comes to community spread.
“People should know their efforts aren’t in vain,” Fiest said. “We just need to continue to work hard to help the people who are helping our sickest patients.”
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