Alberta’s northern health zone, which encompasses regions where vaccination uptake is well below the provincial average, is operating at over 100 per cent of its intensive care capacity.
Alberta Health Services said that as of Wednesday, the North zone had 15 ICU spaces, including nine surge beds, between the Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray hospitals. AHS says it is operating at 104 per cent capacity.
Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, the lead medical officer of health for the North zone, said ICU capacity is both about space as well as the specialized staff required to work it.
In the case of the North zone, she explained, the overcapacity could be the result of health-care workers doing overtime. That’s a solution in the short-term, she said, but quality of care is tied to adequate staffing.
“If the bucket is full … when does it start overflowing? You can maybe start tenting the water a little bit before it starts to spill over,” she said.
“Maybe someone can stay a few extra hours but if that becomes habitual, then there are definitely other considerations and other consequences.”
Health-care workers might also make the decision to transfer a patient elsewhere to ensure quality of care, Koliaska said.
Between Sept. 15 and 22, 33 patients were transferred from the North zone to Edmonton or Calgary — the majority of whom needed ICU care, according to Alberta Health Services.
There were 373 ICU beds in Alberta as of Wednesday, including 200 additional spaces. Capacity levels have reached 84 per cent of surge capacity — or 215 per cent more than the baseline number of spaces.
In a worst-case scenario, a 52-page critical care triage protocol developed by AHS describes how the health-care system will cope if intensive care units no longer have the resources to care for every critically ill patient.
AHS said the protocol has not been activated in the North zone.
Low vaccination coverage
During Tuesday’s provincial COVID-19 update, Premier Jason Kenney singled out northwestern Alberta — and the Peace Country region in particular — for its low vaccination rates.
“People have got to understand that if they get into a car accident or have a heart attack, they may not get the care they should because the majority of the population in the Peace Country is unvaccinated.”
Alberta joins Saskatchewan at the bottom of the national scale when it comes to vaccine coverage for eligible populations.
In Alberta, 82.8 per cent of eligible residents have received a first dose, compared to the Canadian average of 87.1 per cent for first doses. Second doses have been given to 73.7 per cent of eligible Albertans, compared to 80.6 per cent of eligible Canadians.
Many regions in northern Alberta trail the provincial average — none more so than High Level. In that area, which includes the town of the same name, coverage for eligible Albertans sit at 20.9 per cent for first dose and 17.1 per cent for the second.
Koliaska said vaccination coverage varies throughout the north but two barriers are still at play in areas with lower uptake: access and hesitancy.
She said AHS is working with local communities and municipalities to adjust the way vaccine clinics are offered, to take more rural harvesting responsibilities into consideration.
Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is a question of providing information and answering questions people may still have in a personalized way, she said.
“In some ways, the easy work has already been done in the vaccination rollout because people that were more comfortable with the vaccines and have already made the choice to get the vaccines have typically done so,” Koliaska said.
The province has announced it will soon launch a new advertising campaign aimed at providing education about COVID-19 vaccines and debunking common myths.