Alberta looking to free up 2,250 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, AHS official says

Alberta may need to free up 2,250 hospital beds over the next few weeks to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, an AHS official says.

“Alberta Health Services staff and physicians have been working feverishly for a number of weeks now to plan for the space that we’re going to need to care for Albertans,” Dr. Mark Joffe, vice-president and medical director for northern Alberta at Alberta Health Services, said Thursday at a news conference.

Most of those extra beds will come from within the current system of 8,500 beds, Joffe said, which is why the province has postponed elective surgeries to free up “a significant number” of beds.

“At the same time we know we need to find additional beds and our teams are doing exactly that,” he said. 

AHS is looking for care spaces in hospital wards that may have been closed and any other “possible location within our hospitals to see where care might be provided in the event that we need to,” he said.

The province reported 67 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total in the province to 486.

Notably, five more residents at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in Calgary have been tested positive, bringing the total number to 13. No other group home experiencing recent outbreaks recorded additional positive cases over the last 24 hours. 

Thirty-four of the cases are thought to have been transmitted within the province, an increase of one since the day before, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health said at a news conference.

Edmonton News at 6 host Nancy Carlson sits down (virtually, of course) with Alberta Health Services’ Dr. Mark Joffe for a question and answer session focusing on COVID-19. 23:57

Joffe said AHS is looking possibly using hotel rooms for people diagnosed with COVID-19 who live in places where health officials don’t want them to return, because they might transmit the virus to others. 

He said the province could also can find hospital space by converting two-bed patient rooms into three-bed rooms where social distancing guidelines can be met.

Health system responding remarkably, Hinshaw says

As the total number of cases across the world topped 520,000, Hinshaw made reference to other countries (Spain, 56,000 cases) and Italy (80,000 cases) where the coronavirus has crippled health-care systems and killed more than 12,000 people.

“We are doing every possible to limit that from happening in Alberta,” she said.

“Three weeks ago, I said that COVID-19 would test our health system. To date our health system has responded remarkably to that test.”

Hinshaw cautioned that the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In 33 of the cases reported so far, she said, health officials have been unable to track where or how the person contracted the virus.

“So those 33 cases are the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Health officials know there are other cases that have not been detected, people are out in the community who have spread the virus and may continue to spread it.

“So what we know is that that community transmission that is out there right now, that we are trying to get a better understanding of by the shift in our testing, that will drive even more cases in the ICU if we can’t get a handle on this.”

There are now 10 people in the ICU beds, she said.

‘Have to take these actions now’

There is no vaccine for the virus and no single known treatment that can cure those who become sick, Hinshaw said.

“And we know that many people who get it — those especially who are older and have chronic health conditions — will get very sick, and some of them will die.

“And so if we don’t take action now, if we wait until we are in a situation where our hospitals are overwhelmed, it’s too late. We have to take these actions now to prevent us from getting to that place.”

Alberta’s top public health official said while she feels privileged to be seen as the face of the COVID-19 response in Alberta, “there are countless unsung heroes behind the scenes.”

All kinds of people, from health-care workers doing tests and tracing contacts, to first responders and community leaders have won her “heartfelt admiration,” she said.

“They are on the front lines working countless hours in difficult circumstances to slow the spread and keep us safe,” Hinshaw said. “From me and for every Albertan, I want to say thank you for all you are doing to keep us all safe and healthy.”

Since the beginning of March, Albertans have been anxiously watching case numbers, which rose slowly at first and more rapidly over the two weeks.

The province reported its first case of COVID-19 exactly three weeks ago, on March 5.

A week later, on March 12, the total reached 23 cases.

Another week passed, and the total hit 146.

In the six days since then, the number of cases of COVID-19 has climbed to 419.

Hinshaw has become a daily presence in the lives of thousands of Albertans, her news conferences livestreamed across the province as she gives updates about the spread of coronavirus and outlines the latest measures taken to try to slow that spread.

Two people in Alberta have died from COVID-19. Twenty-one people are now in hospital with the illness, including 10 in intensive-care units. The province has seen outbreaks in nursing homes and at a group home for people with developmental disabilities.