ICU status in Alberta – worse than you think

The condition of Alberta ICUs is dire. We are currently at around 140% — that is, we have 140 people for every 100 beds usually available. This has certainly never happened in my memory of the last 20 years.

Government makes this look better than it is by talking about “surge” capacity. These are supposedly “extra” ICU beds.

Here’s the graph

The blue line is number of patients who need ICU care. Red line is typical ICU numbers.

The extra “ICU surge” is in yellow. As of the evening of 13 September, we had 202 people (above the “record 186 COVID-19” line).

For those telling you that “this is no worse than the flu,” you can also see the grey line at the very bottom, which shows the worse flu season levels ever.

The “extra” beds

What you need to realize is that the “extra beds” aren’t quite the same as regular beds. Normally ICUs have one ICU nurse per patient. There are reports from health care workers of:

  • 4 patients being cared for by 1 ICU nurse, assisted by nurses “recruited” from other areas, such as administration and public health
  • patients being “doubled bunked” — two beds in one room looked after by 1 ICU nurse
  • And so forth.

Duh, just open more beds!

People and government talk rather casually about “expanding ICU beds” and “opening more beds.”

This is naive. Beds and equipment are important but they are not much use without staff. We need ICU nurses (and physicians). ICU nurses are retiring or transferring elsewhere due to burn-out and the government’s on-going disrespect. Anyone who wants to be working ICU nursing is already doing it. There is not some untapped pool of nurses waiting to do this job.

AHS is compelling nurses who have never worked in the ICU to work there. I’m sure they’ll do their best, and they deserve credit for “stepping up”–but they don’t deserve to be put in that situation, and from what I’ve seen I think those nurses would be the first to admit that the level of care isn’t going to be what it should be.

It ain’t over yet

Even if we could stop all infections right now from spreading, the next few weeks are locked in stone. They are already rolling, and we can’t change that. It will get worse before it gets better.

Many are warning about a health system failure. I’m afraid that is not an unlikely possibility.

Health care workers will continue to do their best. But the public needs to help us. And we can only do so much with limited resources. Eventually the need may be too great.

The longer government waits, either (a) the higher the cost in disability, illness, and death; or (b) the more severe measures we’ll have to take–e.g., I really don’t want to see the economy or schools shuttered again; or (c) both of the above.

Who cares? I’m young and won’t need an ICU even if I catch COVID

Let’s hope not. But if you’re in a car accident, and you need an ICU, you may be in dire trouble if the ICU beds are all full of COVID patients.

Wishful thinking is not–despite what Premier Jason Kenney seems to think–a good public health strategy.

What to do?

Call your MLA. Demand that provincial leadership act and that they hold daily briefings to keep the public informed and to allow the press to question them and hold them to account. (It’s no surprise that Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, and Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw have been conspicuous in their absence in front of the press for the last 6 weeks.)

Get vaccinated. Mask and encourage the schools to require masking.

We know what works. But we need to be united in doing it.