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Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping gives a COVID-19 update in Edmonton on Sept. 21, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s health minister says a handful of surgery patients had to be temporarily transferred out of a hospital on the weekend due to staffing issues.

“I’m going to put this into perspective: roughly 250 surgeries per week are performed in Red Deer; we had to move seven [patients],” Health Minister Jason Copping told the legislature during question period Monday.

“That’s the strength of our system, to be able to move people around because our system is under strain.”

Alberta Health Services, better known as AHS, confirmed it had to divert the patients to other care centres in central Alberta or to Edmonton and Calgary due primarily to a shortage of clinical assistants who help in the surgeries.

Scheduled surgeries and emergency cases were not transferred, according to AHS. The diverted cases were for general operations, such as appendicitis and bowel resections.

“The situation will be reviewed and evaluated regularly as recruitment efforts continue and will be lifted as soon as possible,” said AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson in a statement.

The Red Deer Hospital also made news last week when up to 14 ambulances were spotted lined up outside the emergency ward due to bottlenecks caused, in part, by a renewed spike in COVID-19 cases.

That prompted the Opposition NDP to accuse Premier Jason Kenney’s government of practising “parking lot medicine.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Monday the Red Deer situation is just one of many staff shortages plaguing Alberta’s health system.

He said doctors he is hearing from describe a pressure-cooker system reaching a crisis point while the health minister publicly plays it down.

“The minister stands daily in question period and at the COVID updates, and generally dismisses it [by saying], ‘Well, we’re a little bit over capacity here and there but everything overall is fine,’ ” said Mr. Shepherd.

“That is frankly gaslighting, and that is hurting the morale of doctors, physicians, nurses, (and) other health-care workers.”

Mr. Kenney and Mr. Copping have stressed that reform of the health system is needed along with more capacity to handle future spikes in patients such as those seen in the heights of the COVID-19 waves.

In February, Mr. Kenney announced $1.8-billion to redevelop and expand the Red Deer Hospital as part of a $3.5-billion province-wide capital plan.

Mr. Copping on Monday said Alberta has more nurses and paramedics compared with two years ago, and 99 more physicians compared with this point last year.

“We’ll be hiring 2,800 more staff in AHS to deliver health care services,” he said.

Mr. Kenney, answering questions in the house Monday, reiterated that Alberta is spending more than ever on health care, adding, “We expect AHS to ensure that these resources are properly deployed to address the urgent needs of Albertans.”

It was the second time in recent weeks that Mr. Kenney has set his sights on AHS, the arm’s-length organization that delivers front-line care in accordance with government policies.

On April 9, Mr. Kenney told a special general meeting of his United Conservative Party, “We must get more bang for the taxpayers’ buck for our enormous investments in this health-care system, and yes, we need more and better accountability from Alberta Health Services.”

Mr. Kenney has acknowledged that during the peak of COVID-19 last fall, the province came dangerously close to the brink of capacity, which would have forced doctors to decide which patients got life-saving care and which did not.

Last month, the board of Alberta Health Services announced it was ending the contract of president Dr. Verna Yiu a year early as part of an organizational reset focused on the government’s plan to redirect more publicly-funded surgeries to private contractors in order to reduce long wait lists.