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Amid signs of slowing spread of respiratory illnesses, Alberta hospitals remain busy

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While outcomes like hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) stays are declining for diseases such as COVID-19 and influenza, Alberta hospitals remain busy with people suffering from various respiratory illnesses.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) had also been circulating during the final months of 2022, especially among Alberta children, creating a situation that has been described by some as a "tripledemic."

"Our hospitals remain very busy, as we continue to experience an increase in respiratory illnesses, as well as higher acuity patients," said Alberta Health Services (AHS) in a statement to CTV News on Friday.

It continued to say that occupancy has been at or near 100 per cent at major urban hospitals, with ICU stays at 76 per cent province-wide.

"We are extremely grateful for the hard work and dedication of AHS staff and physicians who are ensuring patients receive the care they need," said AHS.

Pressure at Alberta Children's hospital is not as extreme as it was in November and December.

"There's no doubt that our volumes, the acuity and our ability to provide care to children seeking emergency department care at the Alberta Children's Hospital is much in a better place and position right now than we were before," said Dr. Stephen Freedman, paediatric physician and instructor at Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

Freedman says that during the peak of the "surge" of three respiratory viruses, 30 per cent of beds designated for emergency patients were filled by admitted patients, anywhere from 15 to 20 children at a time.

While Freedman says there is more capacity at the hospital, the volumes are now at a typical January level, which is an expected peak-time for seasonal illnesses.

AHS says that Alberta Children's Hospital staff who were redeployed are being gradually returned to the home units in a transition expected to continue in February.

All ambulatory outpatient clinics are expected to be at full capacity in February, said AHS.

BY THE NUMBERS

According to COVID-19 tracking data released by the province on Wednesday, hospitalizations are trending down.

There were 78 fewer people in hospital being treated for COVID-19 from the previous week to a total of 778 across the province -- the rate of ICU patients remained unchanged at 29.

Influenza rates are still increasing, but by smaller margins.

The province added 14 more influenza patients, for a total of 1979, while three more patients required ICU totalling 205.

As for total deaths, 102 Albertans have died with influenza this season, six in the last week.

After some data reconciliation, Alberta Health reports that 5,465 Albertans have died of COVID-19 since in the onset of the global pandemic.

Waste water data collection posted online by the Centre for Health Informatics, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary shows a dramatic steep decline in RSV cases from a peak in mid-December.

Wastewater data posted online by U of C shows steep decline in cases from mid-December

Late Friday afternoon, Alberta Health spokesperson Andrew Livingstone provided the following statement and data:

"Data suggests that transmission levels of respiratory viruses are on the decline or plateauing in Alberta," he said. "In Alberta, RSV peaked towards the end of December 2022. Into early January 2023, the number of cases has dropped rapidly. The per cent positivity is starting to decline as well, but it’s still greater than 10 per cent. Data regarding cases of RSV is available online here.

"Influenza cases peaked in the latter half of November 2022 and then rapidly declined. Cases in 2023 are still being detected but to a much lower extent and percent positivity is below five per cent. Data regarding cases of influenza are available here.

"Similarly, COVID-19 positivity has been decreasing since the New Year, but percent positivity is still higher than RSV and influenza at approximately 12 per cent. COVID-19 data is available online here."

GOING FORWARD

While specific respiratory illnesses are trending downward and hospitals are no longer reporting extreme over-capacity concerns, some doctors say caution is still needed.

Dr. Jia Hu, public health physician and lead of "19 to Zero," a group that advocates for pandemic management, says Alberta's position has improved, but higher vaccination rates would help prevent future surges or waves.

"Get the flu shot. There's still time. Certainly next season, get it. (It will be) a lot less likely for you to end up in an emergency room, you're less likely to be hospitalized, and there will be less stressed in the healthcare system, which is very, burdened right now," said Hu.

Alberta Health Services says respiratory illnesses continue to be the main driver for children being taken to the emergency department.

"We encourage all Albertans to ensure they are up to date with influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations and stay home if they have any symptoms," said AHS.

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