With Alberta days away from activating last-resort measures to manage an overwhelming number of seriously ill patients, the possible consequences for the Northwest Territories remain unclear.
The NWT relies on Alberta’s healthcare system both to provide specialist treatment and surgeries and as a backup when the territory’s limited resources aren’t able to cope.
But with 1,718 new cases of Covid-19 reported in the past day alone, Alberta is on the brink of being unable to care for all of its own patients even as the NWT experiences its worst outbreak of the pandemic to date.
The province and territory have the two highest rates of Covid-19 infection in Canada. The NWT had just under 200 active cases as of Wednesday, the equivalent of 432 active cases per 100,000 people. Alberta is reporting 423 active cases per 100,000 people.
Alberta health officials said on Thursday there are 268 patients in the province’s intensive care units. Ordinarily, Alberta has 173 intensive care beds. Hospitals have scrambled to create extra beds, turning other parts of buildings into makeshift intensive care facilities where possible.
Of the 268 patients in intensive care, 222 have Covid-19.
“Close to 78 percent of the cases currently in hospital, including ICUs, are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated,” Dr Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, told reporters on Thursday. “That still leaves 22 percent of those in hospital who are fully vaccinated.”
An internal document made public on Thursday shows Alberta is preparing staff for the potential use of critical-care triage – a system that decides who gets priority if there are more people needing intensive care than there are beds and staff available.
Dr Verna Yiu, chief executive of Alberta Health Services, told reporters the province does not yet need to choose which critically ill patients get care – and is working hard to avoid that – but staff needed to be readied for the prospect.
“I’m aware that one of our internal planning documents was shared publicly this afternoon, which suggests that we are days away from having our ICU overwhelmed,” Dr Yiu said on Thursday.
“There is no question that our ICUs are under extreme pressure. We continually are finding ways to increase our capacity and our numbers change daily, if not hourly. Teams are working 24-seven to ensure we don’t reach that point.
“I cannot stress enough how serious the situation is in our hospitals.”
NWT ‘relief’ at new Alberta measures
Earlier in the week, Premier Jason Kenney acknowledged the province’s prior approach to Covid-19 had been “wrong” as Alberta instituted a fresh wave of public health restrictions to try to contain the latest surge in infection.
“I would say a number of us breathed a sigh of relief last night when the measures were announced in Alberta,” Scott Robertson, the NWT health authority’s Covid-19 co-lead, told the CBC on Thursday morning.
“We do see the spillover effect into the NWT with all the travel that occurs.”
Asked on Wednesday evening how Alberta’s crisis will affect the province’s ability to support the NWT, the territory’s health authority had no answer by Friday morning. Jack Miltenberger, a spokesperson for the health authority, said the authority’s leadership staff were “incredibly busy.”
Speaking to the CBC on Thursday, Robertson said NWT staff were watching Alberta’s health system capacity “very closely” and were in frequent contact with the province.
Kenney has warned Alberta could run out of intensive care beds and staff within the next 10 days.
Ontario has offered to help if demand for intensive care beds in Alberta exceeds supply. That could, for example, mean NWT medevac patients are rerouted if Alberta can no longer take them. (The NWT’s health authority, which had no spokesperson available, did not confirm this would be the case.)
“I remember rare occasions in the past where we have sent patients to other jurisdictions,” Robertson told the CBC, “but that will continue to be coordinated through the same channels with Alberta.”
The NWT does not report daily numbers of Covid-19 patients in hospital or in intensive care, instead reporting cumulative totals.
As of Thursday, the NWT had treated 25 Covid-19 patients in hospital since the start of the pandemic, 21 of which had been admitted since the start of the latest outbreak in August.
Since the pandemic began, seven people with Covid-19 have required intensive care in the NWT. The number of Covid-19 patients currently requiring intensive care in the NWT, if any, is not known.