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Alberta's coronavirus projections: Radically ramping up ICU capacity

The province wants to more than double the number of ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients in one week, and have 1,100 by the end of the month

The number of COVID-19 cases keeps rising in Alberta and that means an onslaught of seriously ill patients will begin flooding emergency rooms, with many ending up on ventilators in intensive care units. The modelling that the provincial government released today forecasts a variety of scenarios ranging from “probable,” which assumes everyone keeps up with self-isolation and physical distancing guidelines, to “extreme,” the worst-case scenario.

The probable scenario estimates that the number of patients needing ICU beds will peak at around 232 (the range is 220 to 244) by late May or early June. The extreme scenario pushes that peak forward to early May with around 392 patients needing ICU beds to stay alive.

That’s a problem. As of today, there are just 158 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients in the entire province. And that means there are not enough specialized ICU beds to handle even the most probable of scenarios. If the situation worsens, then Alberta will be in desperate straits.

So, like other jurisdictions, Alberta is radically reshaping its hospitals to prepare for what could come. It is creating ICU capacity everywhere it can, including what are currently used as operating rooms and treatment rooms.

It has no choice, if it wants to stay ahead of what may be coming. It only has to look at hospitals in New York City, which is desperately shoving ICU beds anywhere it can–even meeting rooms–do deal with its sudden crisis.

Alberta has set itself a daunting challenge. One week from now, it wants to more than double the number of ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients to 325. In two weeks, it wants that number to jump to 570 and then climb to 1,081 by April 29, a number well above both its probable peak of 232 beds, and a 392-bed peak in its elevated scenario.

To put that capacity surge in perspective, when Ontario released its own provincial modelling last week, it estimated it had around 600 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients. It was planning on expanding that capacity by 900 beds, bringing its COVID-19 ICU capacity to around 1,300, which would be just a smidge above the number of patients expected to pack into those beds.  Still, those 1,300 ICU beds in Ontario is 200 beds more than Alberta is planning to create, even though the Western province has 4.4 million people versus Ontario’s 14.7 million.

And that assumes that Alberta can obtain not only the specialist equipment for those ICU beds but also hire the specialist medical personnel needed for the patients.

Of course, all of these modelling scenarios are contingent on many variables: whether people adhere to public health guidelines, whether those restrictions stay as they are, relax or get tougher, and whether the further spread of COVID-19 into vulnerable populations like those in long-term care facilities or remote Indigenous communities is forestalled.

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