CALGARY - Hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton are struggling to cope with a double whammy of both flu and norovirus cases that has led to patients being put in hallways and some surgery postponements.

An Alberta Health Services spokesman said the occupancy rate in hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton is well over 100 per cent on the units which account for most patients.

"What we do is maximize our bed space as best we can and that does include over-capacity spaces in hallways when required so that patients can get the care that they need," said Dr. Francois Belanger, senior vice-president and medical director for Calgary.

Belanger said outbreaks in continuing care facilities and on other wards has limited the ability to move patients around.

There were nine surgeries postponed in Calgary on Tuesday. Two of 246 surgeries scheduled for Wednesday were put off.

"It's less than one per cent so it's really a minor fraction of our business," Belanger said. "The postponements occur only on elective surgeries. All other urgent surgeries go forward."

Alberta Health Services is attempting to free up beds by providing more home care so that patients can be discharged quicker. It is also sending stable out-of-province patients back home and opening temporary beds where possible.

"We are doing all we can to ensure Albertans continue to have access to the health care they need," said Belanger.

Health officials are urging Albertans not to tax the already crowded emergency rooms by coming in with something that could be treated at home with bed rest.

"Emergency departments will never turn away those who need treatment," said Dr. William Dickout, medical director for Edmonton.

"We are looking to Albertans to educate themselves on the options available for their care to ensure they get the care they need quickly, and also to help reduce the pressures on our ERs during this season."

Although it isn't unusual for the health-care system to be under pressure during the normal flu season, this year is a bit unusual, said Belanger.

"We're seeing influenza earlier in the year than we did last year," he said. "We're not only seeing only influenza-like illness. We're seeing at the same time an outbreak of gastroenteritis — the norovirus."

With many regions across the country in the throes of an active flu season, the federal government is drawing on the national stockpile of the flu drug Tamiflu to relieve a shortage in the country.

Higher-than-expected demand for the drug left the company to believe it might not be able to fill its orders, so the Public Health Agency agreed to release some of its Tamiflu stock.

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  • Vitamin C

    "Research has found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds," says Dr Hasmukh Joshi, vice-chair of the Royal College of GPs. In 2007, the authors of a review of 30 trials involving 11,000 people concluded that, "regular ingestion of vitamin C has no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population". A daily dose of vitamin C did slightly reduce the length and severity of colds. When it comes to flu, one person in three believes that taking vitamin C can cure the flu virus. It can't. "Studies found that vitamin C offers a very, very limited benefit," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.

  • Echinacea

    The root, seeds and other parts of echinacea plants are used in herbal remedies that many people believe protect them against colds. There have been a number of studies into echinacea's effect, but no firm conclusions. A review of trials involving echinacea showed that, compared with people who didn't take echinacea, those who did were about 30% less likely to get a cold. However, the studies had varying results and used different preparations of echinacea. It's not known how these compare with the echinacea in shops. This review also showed that echinacea did not reduce the length of a cold when taken on its own. "There is a belief that echinacea aids the immune system, but a survey of studies in 2005 showed that it did not," says Dr Joshi. "I wouldn't recommend that it helps, but if people believe it, they can take it. There's no harm in it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.

  • Zinc

    There is some evidence that taking zinc lozenges as soon as cold symptoms appear may reduce how long a cold lasts. However, some trials have found no difference in the duration of colds in people who took zinc compared with those who did not. There has also been research into nasal sprays containing zinc. "Some people believe that the zinc lines the mucosa [the lining of the nose] and stops a cold virus attaching itself to the nose lining," says Dr Joshi. "Unfortunately, this has been found to be no more effective than a placebo." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.

  • Getting cold or wet

    The only thing that can cause a cold or flu is a cold or flu virus. Getting cold and/or wet won't give you a cold. However, if you are already carrying the virus in your nose, it might allow symptoms to develop. A study at the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff found that people who chilled their feet in cold water for 20 minutes were twice as likely to develop a cold as those who didn't chill their feet. The authors suggest that this is because some people carry cold viruses without having symptoms. Getting chilled causes blood vessels in the nose to constrict, affecting the defences in the nose and making it easier for the virus to replicate. "Getting a cold from going out in the cold or after washing your hair is a myth," says Dr Joshi. "Colds are common. If the virus is already there and then you go out with wet hair and develop symptoms, it's common to think that is what caused it." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.

  • So what does work?

    The flu vaccine can prevent you from catching flu. Apart from that, the best way to protect yourself from colds and flu is to have a healthy lifestyle. "Eat a healthy diet, take regular exercise and drink plenty of warm drinks in the winter months," says Dr Joshi. "The important thing to remember is that most people are going to catch a cold in winter anyway, because there is no effective cure for cold viruses." Information from <a href="http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/coldsandflu/Pages/Preventionandcure.aspx" target="_hplink">NHS Choices</a>.