2021 Story of the Year: 56 Hatters die in two-and-a-half months

·5 min read

Between Aug. 17 and Nov. 3, 56 Hatters died in a COVID-related death.

We may not know their names; we may not know their stories – we may never know more than the number they added to the city’s death count. But for their family, friends and loved ones, they were someone, and now they are gone.

Fifty-six people dead in two-and-a-half months, hundreds sick, the local hospital and ICU overwhelmed by the number of patients, health-care workers facing burnout, ambulances facing red alerts; that is the toll the fourth wave took on the community.

The city’s fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been chosen by the News editorial board as the 2021 Story of the Year.

“It was something I will never forget for the rest of my life,” Dr. Debkant Jena, an orthopedic surgeon and former chief of surgery at Medicine Hat Regional Hospital, told the News.

Jena volunteered in the COVID ward of MHRH throughout the fourth wave. Despite working in the medical field for 20 years, he was surprised by what he experienced.

“I came to realize why some people think it’s a hoax, because even working in the hospital, (you) have no idea until you go there and you see so many sick people all at once,” he said. “I’ve told many of my colleagues who have not worked in the COVID unit that without that (experience), I would not have known what was going on.”

While the virus remained invisible to most outside the hospital, inside it was chaotic.

“When there’s a big accident or a mass casualty, we all know and we feel for the people, but (with COVID) everything is happening inside the four walls of the hospital,” Jena said.

Throughout the fourth wave, local physician Dr. Paul Parks, president of the section of emergency medicine at AMA, spoke openly about the difficulties MHRH, and other Alberta hospitals, were facing.

“I think the biggest thing in the fourth wave was having our ICU and our resources get pressured to the point where it was difficult to care for all the patients,” Parks said. “It kind of got tougher and tougher as the months went on. Each wave just got harder but, of course, the fourth wave (was when) we really did kind of push our resource limit, so it was tough.”

Throughout the fourth wave, Parks spoke openly about his experience in the hospital. He described crowded units and overworked staff who were often in charge of double the patients they would normally be. He also spoke on the fact that many individuals not diagnosed with COVID were being affected by the surge in cases, as hospitals could no longer perform routine functions to the same degree as before.

“Surge ICU beds are metastasizing into every other part of the hospital, rapidly crowding out every other function our hospital should be able to serve; we are only able to find more space because so many are dying, and urgent surgeries have been postponed indefinitely,” Parks wrote in a letter to Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Jason Copping in October.

Not only did this push medical resources to the limit – creating a long-lasting backlog – it burdened health-care workers, who witnessed illness and death daily, said Jena.

“The emotional strain of looking after somebody who passes away, that’s big. A lot of people take it personally,” he said. “You feel that it was your fault, because you were looking after them.

“The emotional stress is definitely not easy. After my first two or three shifts, it really disturbed me. I couldn’t do it day in and day out. As much as you are trying to do a good job, everybody is human at the end of the day and you cannot completely take your emotions out of the sick people or the families.”

While the provincial government did eventually respond to the fourth wave by reintroducing certain public health measures, such as mandatory masking in public places (Sept. 4) and the Restrictions Exemptions Program (Sept. 15) which requires proof of dual vaccination for individuals to patron dining establishments, critics said action came too late and could do little to slow the rapidly spreading virus, particularly the deadly Delta variant.

At the height of Medicine Hat’s fourth wave, there were 696 active cases of COVID-19 (Sept. 28). MHRH’s intensive care unit was expanded to accommodate the record-breaking number of COVID-19 patients, while still trying to save space for anyone injured or in need of immediate medial assistance.

Even as cases in the city slowly began to fall, deaths continued to rise. In the 24 hours between Sept 30 and Oct. 1, five Hatters died as a result of COVID-19 – the highest number of deaths in one day originating from one natural cause in more than a century.

Medicine Hat was not the only city in Alberta to suffer, however it does have a disproportionately high rate of deaths per capita compared to other major cities. Lethbridge, with roughly 35,000 more citizens than Medicine Hat, has experienced 62 COVID-related deaths (as of Dec. 22).

“If you look at our per-capita death rate related to COVID, one of the biggest factors would be our uptake of vaccination in our community and area, it being lower would contribute to us having a higher per-capita death rate for sure,” Parks said. “In our experience, in Medicine Hat, with roughly 90 per cent of the patients that were sick enough to be hospitalized – and, definitely, the patients that needed to go to ICU – over 90 per cent or more were unvaccinated.”

As we leave the Holiday Season behind and enter into 2022, Parks, Jena and other medical professionals encourage anyone not already vaccinated to do so, and for everyone to get their boosters as soon as eligible.

“We are all very fatigued and it’s been a very, very long 20 months (but) I would just caution people that the pandemic’s not over,” said Parks. “I would caution people to continue doing the simple things … keep masking, decrease our numbers in mingling and socializing, wash hands, do social distancing and make sure that everybody gets vaccinated … Those kind of things are going to allow us to transition to a more normal way of life, which everybody wants.”

KENDALL KING, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News

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