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Mounting pressures: Alberta sees ambulance red alerts, hospital closures, and staff redeployments

If you tried to call for an ambulance in Edmonton on Sunday evening, you might have found yourself waiting for more than an hour as Alberta's healthcare system continues to face staffing pressures.

According to the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the two largest cities in the province continue to face numerous code reds, meaning no ambulances are available to respond to calls on a sustained basis.

"Today, we all face this risk of no ambulance available for an extended period of time," said Mike Parker, HSAA president.

"Our paramedics are overwhelmed," Parker said, adding that "relentless" call volumes are pushing the system to rely on utilizing ambulances from up to 100 kilometres away.

"Crews are travelling in excess of an hour, lights and sirens, to get to people's 911 call," he said. "That is happening every single day in this province."

As call volumes surge, Parker said 911 operators are being forced to perform urgent disconnects, where existing calls are abruptly ended so that operators can answer the subsequent calls waiting in the queue.

"Our crews responding at this level for this long is an absolute devastation on their ability to provide that level of care," Parker said.

"Our entire health-care system from lab to respiratory therapy to our front line paramedics are all at a point of failure or exhaustion at this time."

CTV News reached out to Alberta Health for comment.


Parker said that ambulances leaving rural communities to respond to calls within Edmonton or Calgary are leaving surrounding municipalities and counties with little to no EMS coverage.

Staffing pressures and increasing demand affect the entire healthcare continuum, from nurses, physicians to cleaning staff, said Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta.

Smith said nurses who were redeployed from their original worksites to meet patient surges during the fourth wave of the pandemic still have not been able to return to their original worksites.

"This is a clearly exhausted workforce that is being asked for yet another push of their reserves, if they have anything left," she added.

While absentee data from Alberta Health Services for December is unavailable as the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave begins, Smith said the UNA's reporting system for concerns has seen a steady amount of people concerned about staffing issues.

"It's already happening," Smith said. "I expect (absentee rates due to sickness) will only increase.

"What that means is that in some places staff may be asked to work certainly double shifts in terms of 16 hours, and we've heard reports of staff being asked to remain for 20 hours and even up to 24 hours because there are not replacement staff coming."

Lack of available staff continues to create service disruptions for Alberta hospitals. This week at least three rural hospitals are scheduled for temporary closures, with 23 communities facing bed reductions.

"We've always kind of run our system near capacity, and COVID has certainly pushed us over for that, but now the shortages, the shutdowns, this is new territory," rural physician Dr. Parker Vandermeer told CTV News.

Vandermeer says that in his 10 years of working in Alberta he has never seen so many emergency room closures, temporary service reductions, or staff need to take sustained overtime shifts.

"The reality of this is, when they do get sick in a town that maybe only has three or four RNs that they are functioning 24/7 with, that's already 25 per cent of your supply of RNs gone. That's going to have an effect," he said.

"It's unfortunately become more of a frequent occurrence where we have emergency departments, specifically, needing to shut down for periods of a few hours or even a few days." Top Stories

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