With COVID-19 cases increasing dramatically, a group of physicians from across the province is calling on the Alberta government to impose an immediate two-week emergency lockdown.
In a letter sent Monday to Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, the group warned that the province's acute-care system could soon be overburdened if no extra restrictions are imposed.
"We believe that the conversation should not be framed as a choice between 'lockdown' akin to the prolonged experience in April-June, or no mandatory restrictions," said the letter, signed by more than 70 physicians.
"Instead, the province should consider a two-week short, sharp lockdown, or 'circuit-breaker,' to drop the effective reproductive number and allow contact tracing to catch up. We believe it is time we had clear direction from our provincial government. We need rules not suggestions."
The letter urged political and health leaders to "show the leadership the moment requires" in order to stave off further crisis and loss of life.
After the two-week lockdown, the letter said, the province could turn to "targeted regional control measures" similar to those in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia, which have sliding scales of restrictions based on the number of cases, hospital admissions and the capacity of its intensive care units.
Signatories of the letter include intensive care physicians, emergency physicians, general internists, pulmonologists, infectious disease specialists and family doctors.
Kenney has refused to enact any new lockdowns, arguing the measures could hurt the economy and affect people's mental health. He has continued to urge Albertans to take personal responsibility and follow guidelines.
The premier repeated that message at a news conference with Hinshaw on Friday.
Dr. Noel Gibney, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta's school of medicine, said Kenney's responses prompted him to write the letter and circulate it among physicians in Alberta.
"It's just such a jarring response at a time when clearly the information is that this is getting bad," he said. "And the premier's response was to say, 'Well, behave yourselves.' It's kind of like a father to teenagers. 'Behave yourself or you'll get time out.'"
Over the last three weeks, the letter said, the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions have dramatically increased, with the latter two numbers hitting an all-time high over the weekend.
On Sunday, Alberta Health reported 727 new cases. But on its website, the province noted that was "preliminary data and subject to reconciliation."
Alberta Health reported 644 new cases on Monday, with 192 people in hospital, including 39 patients in ICU.
Consequences could be 'catastrophic,' letter warns
"If this rate of increase continues unabated, our acute care health system will be overrun in the near future," the letter said.
"There have been advances in the care of critically ill COVID-19 patients based on research over the last nine months that have resulted in significant reductions in mortality and time to recovery. However, if the rate of COVID-19 spread continues, the consequences to the people of Alberta will be catastrophic."
Acute care beds used to treat patients with other serious conditions would be occupied by COVID-19 patients, while operating rooms would be converted to become overflow ICUs, the letter said.
"While other hospital units can be converted to provide intensive care, there is a very finite number of health-care professionals with the necessary skills to provide this level of care," the letter added. "Hard experience elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S. has shown that when these resources are overwhelmed, mortality rates from COVID-19 and other potentially treatable conditions increase dramatically."
The current approach taken by the province, which relies on the public to voluntarily stop holding social gatherings in their homes, is unlikely to significantly slow the rate of spread of the disease, the letter said.
At a news conference on Friday, Kenney urged Albertans to forgo parties and social gatherings in their homes to cap the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the province.
He did not impose mandatory restrictions in Edmonton and Calgary to protect public health, but also didn't rule them out if the cases continue to skyrocket.
"We've seen other jurisdictions implement sweeping lockdowns, indiscriminately violating people's rights and destroying livelihoods," Kenney said on Friday. "Nobody wants that to happen here in Alberta."
The no-party request is only a strong recommendation and won't be enforced, Kenney said.
"We're not going to be sending out police to monitor this," he said. "As much as what we've done, this is appealing to people to exercise personal and collective responsibility, so that we can avoid having to use more stringent measures."
The premier said, while he would prefer to avoid mandatory measures, he would do so if needed.
"I've been clear from the get-go that as much as I believe Albertans want to retain what I call 'responsible freedom,' in all of this, if folks don't respond to the kind of voluntary measures we're calling on today in Calgary and Edmonton — no more at home parties, for example — we will have no choice but to bring in more stringent measures. I don't want to do that."
Asked for a response to the physicians' letter, a spokesperson for Kenney referred to the premier's remarks from Friday.
At her news conference on Monday, Hinshaw called a short, sharp lockdown an "interesting" idea.
"When we're looking at all of our options, we know that there is no one perfect way to manage our COVID-19 experience," she said.
"We need to look at all options on the table, including something like that circuit breaker, including what we're doing now, which is giving Albertans every opportunity to walk along with us, to come alongside and be a part of the solution before we impose restrictions."