Alberta Children’s Hospital sees relief from unprecedented demand spike

After several months of battling an unprecedented surge of respiratory viruses, the pressure at Alberta Children’s Hospital, while still high, has eased.

A trio of viral illnesses — RSV, influenza and COVID-19 — overwhelmed the hospital in November and December.

As demand ballooned, wait times spiked, beds were added, staffed had to be redeployed and some patient care was delayed.

“Things have changed dramatically, I would say, over the last four to six weeks,” said Dr. Stephen Freedman, who works in the ER at the Calgary hospital.

“Our volumes, acuity level and number of patients was drastically above normal ranges … and stretching our system to, and beyond, capacity.”

According to Freedman, emergency room visits and hospitalizations have dropped since they peaked before Christmas.

“We are still quite busy but more typical for what we would be seeing in January, which is often a high volume season for pediatric emergency departments in Canada,” said Freedman, who teaches pediatrics and emergency medicine a the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.

Wait times, he said, are within typical ranges for this time of year, and the ER is no longer backed up with admitted patients waiting for beds on the wards.

According to Alberta Health Services (AHS), capacity for both inpatient units and the pediatric ICU at  the hospital was just under 100 per cent as of Thursday, and emergency room visits are now close to seasonal averages.

The health authority said staff — redeployed to address spiking demand — are resuming their normal duties as impacted outpatient clinics are gearing back up and care delays are being addressed.

A bearded doctor in a white hospital jacket poses for a photo with a stethoscope around his neck.
Dr. Stephen Freedman, professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Calgary, says pediatric ER visits and hospitalizations have dropped since the spike in November and December. (Submitted by Dr. Stephen Freedman)

“Staff who were redeployed to support the surge in hospital patients in November and December are being gradually returned to their home units. This is being monitored and will continue into February,” AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement.

“A minimal number of postponements for ambulatory outpatient clinics occurred, as we back-filled those redeployed staff as much as possible. All postponed appointments have been rebooked and most have been completed. All clinics are anticipated to be back to full capacity in February with the return of the remaining redeployed staff.”

A temporary six-bed, short-stay unit, supported by redeployed Flames Rotary House staff, has also been closed since the palliative and respite facility reopened on Jan. 16.

Review needed, doctor says

Meanwhile, Freedman would like to see a thorough evaluation of the crisis that hit pediatric hospitals.

“Really looking at … how are we better prepared for the next massive surge, should it happen and occur? And where are our capacities too limited that we don’t have the bandwidth to expand and handle it? And how do we address those?”

Part of the problem, he noted, is that pediatric care is far more constrained than adult care.

“There are multiple adult institutions, multiple adult ICUs. There is a little bit more bandwidth across the province … in terms of managing adult illnesses when you hit capacity,” he said.

With just two pediatric hospitals in the province, there isn’t much room to expand in times of crisis, according to Freedman.

“Physicians, nurses we can be pushed for a certain period of time to provide additional coverage. But when there’s no rooms, no beds, no ventilators and ICUs are full, that is a problem that is much more challenging to overcome,” he said.

“Not just here in Alberta, but right across the country, we need to make sure that our pediatric hospitals have the capacity both for inpatient pediatrics as well as ICU care, should the need arise again.”

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