The fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out differently in Alberta hospitals this time.
“I think it’s different this time because there are so many health care workers who are getting sick themselves,” Reanne Booker, an oncology and palliative care nurse who volunteered to work in the Foothills Hospital intensive care unit, told Global News.
“So we’ve got this convergence now of a rapidly-increasing number of people getting infected and our health care systems getting overwhelmed just by the sheer number of people who need care, but then we also have health-care workers who are themselves falling ill and having to take time off work.
“So it’s this perfect storm of bad things that are happening all at once. And so that’s really stretching things in terms of capacity.”
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A statement from an AHS spokesperson said they are “extremely concerned by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, both in the community and in our hospitals.”
“We are starting to see some impact to health-care services due to staffing challenges, particularly at some acute care services at rural sites due to staff illness or isolation,” Kerry Williamson said.
According to data from Alberta Health, hospitalizations in the province have increased by 59.1 per cent between Jan. 4 and 11. In Calgary, hospitalizations jumped by 56.7 per cent and ICU admissions by 54.5 per cent in the same week-long period.
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On Wednesday, the province reported 748 were in hospital with COVID-19, with 82 in ICU. Calgary’s hospitals currently have 304 COVID-19 patients in them.
While those numbers haven’t yet reached the previous late-September peak of 1,128 in hospital, Booker said she’s seen near-exponential growth in ICU admissions.
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“And while the numbers right now might look overall small, it’s that trend: it’s seeing that trend that things are increasing,” she said. “And we can expect that just by the sheer volume of people getting exposed and infected with COVID, that those numbers in hospital and in ICU will continue to increase.
“And of course, we know that’s a lagging indicator, that people get sick and then it’s a few weeks later that they’re really, badly sick with COVID.”
Dr. Neeja Bakshi, an internal medicine and COVID unit physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, is one of the 5,862 Alberta health-care workers currently sick with COVID-19.
One of Bakshi’s eight-year-old twin daughters developed a fever last week and tested positive on a rapid test. The rest of the family later tested positive last Wednesday.
Bakshi said her family went through the “gamut” of symptoms.
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“The girls both had fevers, cough and runny noses, and quite lethargic,” the mother and doctor said. “They thankfully are doing much better today, they’re playing today”
“I’ve had quite a bit of fatigue, sore throat, cough. I developed a full body rash, muscle spasms. I lost my taste. Thank goodness my taste is coming back.”
The seemingly-unshakeable fatigue is one of the hallmarks of COVID-19, Bakshi said.
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“It’s just this crippling fatigue where you could sleep 12 hours at night and then still need three or four hours nap during the day.”
Those symptoms are clinically defined as mild, “not needing to go to the hospital or being intubated on a ventilator,” the Edmonton doctor said.
“Anything that requires you to sleep 18 hours in a 24-hour period is not mild. Anything that requires you to be out of work, out of commission for seven days is not mild.”
“And I think on top of that, the thought that we should just all get Omicron and just be done with it: we still don’t know what non-COVID looks like for Omicron, but we know long COVID exists.”
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Bakshi said she has long COVID patients who are still experiencing symptoms a year and a half after catching the coronavirus.
The Edmonton physician said she’s been vigilant following the latest science to prevent bringing COVID-19 home. She feels guilty and doesn’t know how her family caught it.
“And then there’s also the guilt of now I’m home for seven days. I haven’t been able to go and help my colleagues at the hospital,” she said.
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Bakshi says her Edmonton hospital is in “bad, bad shape,” seeing the same exponential increases of COVID patients coming in.
“And on top of that, while admissions are going up, we are seeing staff shortages just plummet because we people are getting COVID and people getting ill and they’re having to isolate.”
AHS said they have been planning for increased staff illnesses due to the Omicron variant.
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“Plans include shifting staff members to areas of highest priority, using alternate models of care, and prioritizing HCWs for testing to maximize available workforce,” Williamson said.
“If required, reduction in services and surgeries will be contemplated in order to redeploy staff to areas of highest need.”
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Bakshi has been fever-free for the past three days and could, technically, return to work in a couple of days.
“Which seems silly to me, but I actually do understand from a workforce perspective where we have been put into a corner like this because we don’t have people to care for patients in the hospital and we need people to care for patients in the hospital,” she said.
“If I was talking to a patient of mine who look like me or who sounded like me, I would probably say, ‘You need to stay home for a few more days. You’re not quite ready.’”
— with files from Lauren Pullen, Global News
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