Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said a field hospital being set up at Edmonton’s Butterdome is a “contingency plan.”
On Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced Alberta Health Services is working with the Red Cross to create an alternate care centre at the multi-purpose sports facility on the University of Alberta campus.
She said the centre will take a few weeks to set up and will have about 100 beds available. However, she said it won’t be staffed unless it is needed.
On Thursday morning, Shandro said the temporary facility would only be necessary if current hospital limits, including creating up to 2,250 beds for COVID-19 patients, are reached.
“We’re going to continue to make sure that everybody who needs critical care gets the care that they need, or everybody that is critically ill gets that the care that they need,” Shandro said.
“And we will continue to make sure that not only are we making sure we have capacity for our current forecasting, but of course, we want to take steps to develop contingency plans as well, which is only prudent planning.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 749 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 139 of whom were being treated in intensive care.
Dr. Noel Gibney, who works in the department of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, said he wasn’t particularly surprised to hear of the plan.
“Just looking at the numbers of new COVID patients that are occurring every day — although the rate is down somewhat — the hospitalizations are continuing in a fairly linear fashion,” he said Thursday morning. “Week by week, there are more COVID beds being created, effectively pushing other patients out of the hospital or requiring that the COVID patients will have to go someplace else.
“I would consider it disturbing because of the numbers that are continuing to increase, but also I think it’s sensible contingency planning and it’s very similar to what has been required in other places, particularly in the United States, where various fields hospitals were set up in New York during the spring outbreak.”
Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, said this isn’t a situation we want to be in.
“Any time we have to activate temporary spaces is not optimal. It’s something we need to avoid,” he said.
“But unfortunately, as numbers have been rising over the last several weeks, we know hospitalizations and critical intensive care unit admissions are going to go up in the coming weeks.”
While daily case numbers have plateaued over the past several days, Jenne warns hospitalizations tend to lag behind the identification of infection by two or three weeks. Both doctors also warn the upcoming holidays could cause the daily numbers and resulting hospitalizations to spike yet again.
“The situation in Alberta is extremely serious,” Gibney said. “I sincerely hope that those case numbers that have been coming down will continue to come down — but people being people, this being the Christmas holidays, I really worry that what we’re looking at is the start of a superspreading event that will become apparent in the New Year, first week of January.”
Jenne said the upcoming holidays are likely to be the biggest challenge Alberta is going to face.
“We have seen without exception, following long weekends, following holidays with family gatherings — be it Labour Day, Thanksgiving — we have seen dramatic spikes in COVID numbers.
“Despite the fact there are restrictions, people will likely still be gathering with family and friends over the holidays. These are the environments the virus will use to spread and then following Christmas, we will, unfortunately, expect to see an uptick in viral numbers again. The question is how big and how long that will last,” Jenne said.
Shandro said if the Butterdome is needed, Red Cross staff would not be used to work in the facility.
AHS previously used the Butterdome as an assessment centre earlier this spring.
Andrew Sharman, U of A vice-president of facilities and operations, said the facility will be ready to add more than the initial 100 beds if needed.
“It’s also about doing the right thing and doing whatever we can,” said Sharman, who is also the executive lead of the university’s COVID-19 response. “Our community is also affected by this.”
The university said its history of serving the community during a pandemic dates back to 1918 at the height of the Spanish Flu, when Pembina Hall was transformed from a student residence and classrooms to an emergency influenza hospital that would eventually serve more than 300 patients.
Alberta already has a field hospital up and running outside the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary, and it’s currently being used to allow for extra physical distancing while emergency patients are treated.
With files from The Canadian Press.
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