A group of Alberta doctors sent a letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Tuesday, imploring him to take immediate action to control the spread of COVID-19.
Alberta has the highest rate of COVID-19 in Canada over a seven-day period ending on May 2, at 296 cases per 100,000 population. The U.S. state that came closest to Alberta’s COVID-19 case count in the same time frame was Michigan, with 252 cases per 100,000 people.
“The province has responded, but it has responded very often too late and with too little, with the end result that we’ve never really gotten COVID under proper control,” said Dr. Noel Gibney, University of Alberta Critical Care Medicine, who was part of the group that sent the letter.
As of Monday, Alberta Health reported 658 people in hospital and 154 in ICU as a result of the virus — the highest numbers in the province since the start of the pandemic.
The doctors wrote that there is a greater number of younger patients who are now getting severely ill from the coronavirus and being admitted into hospital and ICU than there was at any previous period during the pandemic.
“This will also result in thousands of Albertans suffering significant disability for months or years due to long-COVID,” the letter read.
“The increase in cases is due to the more transmissible variants, Alberta’s premature relaxing of public health measures following the second wave of COVID and the current inadequate public health restrictions to combat COVID transmission in the province.”
“With B117 in particular, it seems to be affecting children more than the wild type, so we are seeing young children that are coming into hospital that are needing to be admitted and then teenagers that are having to be admitted to ICU, so this is much, much different than the previous wave,” said Dr. Shazma Mithani, Royal Alexandra & Stollery Children’s hospitals emergency room physician.
The letter states that modelling projections indicate there will be between 300 and 320 Albertans in ICU as a result of the virus by the end of May.
The doctors said while additional beds and equipment can be provided, it is unlikely there will be enough health care workers with the necessary expertise to staff the ICU surge and provide the care needed for patients who are critically ill.
“This whole concept of 450 ICU beds is really not a sustainable number because it can’t be staffed, and even if it could, the level of care we deliver would probably be I would not be our normal standard of care,” said Dr. Darren Markland with the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s ICU, who signed the letter.
The surge would also require the opening of a triage at the University of Alberta clinical sciences building, the doctors wrote.
“This type of protocol is typically used during a major natural disaster, wartime or a pandemic where maximal public health restrictions have failed to prevent crashing the acute hospital system,” the letter read. “It is clear that in this third COVID wave Alberta has still not implemented the necessary measures to break the transmission of infection in the province.”
Last week, Global News learned AHS was meeting with certain staff to discuss what to do and how to approach life-or-death decisions if COVID-19 patients overwhelm the system.
The invitation, which was shared with Global News, described the Alberta Critical Care Triage Framework as protocol to be used if “a dire situation” were to occur where “the demand for life-sustaining critical care support is greater than the available resources.”
On Monday, Kenney said the government would announce increased measures on Tuesday.
“I said last Thursday that if Albertans aren’t willing to do what’s right, even though it’s hard, then we will be forced to take further steps,” Kenney said. “Given the issues we’ve seen this weekend and the record high cases reported, we are developing a package of stronger public health measures, which I expect to announce tomorrow.”
Kenney has argued Alberta has the same restrictions as B.C. and Saskatchewan, which have seen their COVID cases decrease in recent weeks. The Alberta premier has said the major issue has not been a lack of restrictions, but rather Albertans refusing to follow the rules.
“At the end of the day, what’s required is broad public buy in to the restrictions that are in place,” he said on Monday.
“This notion that a lot of these questions are that we should have been in Alberta on a rigid lockdown for months like Toronto has been, didn’t seem to help them in their third wave, I frankly think that would have worsened the problem of non-compliance.”
But Markland puts the blame squarely on poor leadership by Kenney and his government.
“Leadership is so important here and it’s quite clear that if you don’t lead, then all of a sudden you get civil disobedience. And we’re seeing more and more examples of that,” Markland said. “If it’s not if it’s not dealt with, then we’re going to spiral out of control with respect to these things.”
The group of doctors is calling on the government to initiate restrictions similar to those implemented in the first wave during the spring of 2020, including closing restaurant patios, closing all stores with the exception of those deemed essential and moving all K-12 students back to virtual learning.
Gibney said the other critical element is the enforcement of rules.
“I think we need strong leadership and I think we need enforcement. I think the leadership needs to be prepared to deal with the criticism that leaders inevitably get in this type of situation and be prepared to implement the type of restrictions that are necessary to stop the spread of COVID on a person to person basis,” Gibney said.
Gibney said it is not too late to turn the situation around in Alberta if the government implements strong measures immediately.
“If we leave it another two weeks, that’s too late,” he said. “This is the week to do it and I think we can get this in control.”
Gibney believes Alberta can get back to life that is closer to normal by the end of the June if the province implements strong restrictions now and vaccines continue to rollout.
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