10K surgeries delayed during Alberta's 3rd COVID-19 wave

The sudden death of 17-year-old Sarah Strate in Magrath, Alberta, days after she tested negative for COVID-19 when her sister contracted the illness, is one of many heartbreaking stories emerging from the pandemic. Heather Yourex-West reports on the pressure building on Alberta's health care system, and what it means for people waiting for surgery.

An additional 10,000 surgeries have been delayed in the third COVID-19 wave, according to Alberta Health Services.

The non-urgent procedures were pushed back to ease the strain on the health-care system as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions spiked in April and the first part of May.

During the first and second waves of the pandemic, about 25,000 non-urgent surgeries had to be postponed.

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No urgent or emergent surgeries were postponed, AHS said.

However, it will take some time to catch up from the backlog created by the delays.

In March 2021, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the province would try to perform 55,000 additional scheduled surgeries this year, on top of the 29,000 operations done in a typical year. But that was before the third pandemic wave hit.

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In May, the premier said Alberta’s health-care system is normally set up to care for about 170 people in ICU. Additional ICU beds have been added as needed — and could expand up to 425 — but AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the challenge was staffing those additional beds.

Yiu said the conversion of other hospital spaces to unstaffed ICU beds has reduced capacity for surgeries — up to 30 per cent in some hospitals.

As vaccines were administered and restrictions put in place to lower transmission rates, new daily case numbers started to decline in mid- to late-May, bringing down overall hospital numbers and ICU admissions.

Between May 12 and June 3, COVID-19 hospitalizations went down from 737 to 411. Over the same time period, the number of Albertans in ICU with COVID-19 went from 169 to 120.

“A small number of non-urgent, scheduled surgeries are still being postponed,” AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said Friday. “However, that number has decreased as community cases, hospitalizations and ICU cases have fallen.

“Provincially, we are now back up to 98 per cent of normal surgical volume.”

The number of postponed — or procedures that weren’t scheduled — surgeries varies by site and by week, AHS said.

In the Calgary zone, there are fewer reductions: five per cent overall.

In the Edmonton zone, there is an overall estimated 10 per cent reduction.

In the North zone, there is an overall estimated five per cent reduction.

There are no surgical reductions in either South zone or Central zone, AHS said.

Daily COVID-19 numbers

Alberta Health confirmed 244 new COVID-19 cases out of 5,818 tests on Friday.

Alberta’s positivity rate sat at about four per cent.

There were a total of 5,415 active cases across the province. Of those, 3,186 involved variants of concern.

As of Friday, there were 379 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 108 in ICU.

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Alberta Health said Friday that seven additional COVID-19 deaths had been reported over the last 24 hours.

Six of the fatalities included comorbidities: a man in his 20s and a woman in her 80s from the North zone, a man and woman — both in their 60s — and a man in his 70s in the Edmonton zone, and a man in his 70s from the Calgary zone.

A man in his 30s in the Central zone also died from COVID-19. His death did not involve any known comorbidities, Alberta Health said.

Nearly 2,951,930 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered, and 466,269 Albertans have been fully immunized with two doses.

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