Alberta's health-care system nearly overwhelmed before restrictions brought back, doctors say

·3 min read
Dr. Shahzeer Karmali, a general surgeon at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital, says frontline health-care workers feel
Dr. Shahzeer Karmali, a general surgeon at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital, says frontline health-care workers feel

Alberta's beleaguered health-care system was weeks away from being overwhelmed had the government of Premier Jason Kenney not reimposed restrictions Friday in an attempt to stem spiralling COVID-19 infection rates, experts say.

Last week, a group of independent academics in British Columbia released modelling data that showed COVID-19 cases in Alberta could reach 6,000 a day by the beginning of October, with more than 1,500 hospitalizations and nearly 500 patients in intensive care units.

Modelling data released by the Alberta government Friday showed the province could see close to 2,000 new cases daily under a "high scenario" by mid-September.

Under the same scenario and timeframe, Alberta could also see close to 290 people in ICU, while hospitalizations could peak at 700 over the next several weeks.

Edmonton-based infectious diseases specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger likened the rapidly rising infection rates to a train "barrelling down the tracks toward looming disaster, and we haven't adjusted course yet."

Saxinger said that if nothing had been done, and the B.C. modelling numbers held, "it would just crush the health-care system."

Alberta's entire health-care system, from ambulances to intensive care units to surgeries, has been strained for months.

Martin Weaver/CBC
Martin Weaver/CBC

Intensive care units in the province are now 95 per cent full -- 97 per cent in Edmonton.

Dozens of surgeries have been cancelled and Alberta Health Services announced Friday that hundreds more surgeries and other procedures are being postponed.

Health-care workers exhausted

Health-care workers said they were exhausted and burned out after 18 months of the pandemic. Due to chronic staffing shortages, AHS has forced nurses and paramedics to cancel holidays and work mandatory overtime.

Many doctors and other frontline health-care workers said they believe the pandemic has been unnecessarily extended by a government that, for political reasons, has repeatedly lifted restrictions needed to curtail the spread of COVID-19 — and has later been forced to bring them back.

Alberta has had the worst response to the pandemic, based on infection rates, and the lowest rate of vaccination of any province in Canada.

"You feel defeated; this is the main thing as frontline health-care workers, you feel defeated," Dr. Shahzeer Karmali, a general surgeon at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital, said following the Friday news conference announcing new restrictions and more surgery postponements.

"We have been clamouring for change and we just feel defeated, not heard," Karmali said, adding that he fears apathy may set in.

"The worst thing you can have among a group of physicians or nurses is apathy.

"Although every day we don't get support. They're trying to cut nurses' wages and they are telling us to work harder," he said.

"The only thing we do it for is patients because if we don't do it, patients will suffer."

Paramedics were already dealing with an epidemic of opioid overdoses before the recent spike in COVID-19 infections.

The call volume for paramedics has increased by more than 50 per cent in the last six months and there are now more than 1,500 calls a day, said Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

Ambulances unavailable

Situations where ambulances are not available to respond to a call — known as a code red — are becoming common, Parker said.

Alberta Health Services has been forced to bring ambulances from rural areas into the cities to handle the volume of calls, he said. Recently, an ambulance travelled 117 kilometres for a 911 call in Calgary.

Ambulances transporting patients to city hospitals from rural areas have been stacked up for hours because there aren't enough staff to process the patients, or beds aren't available.

Some rural ambulances remain in the city all day responding to 911 calls, Parker said, "leaving the outlying communities empty with no EMS protection."

Some ambulances have been parked because there aren't enough paramedics to staff them.

Leave is being cancelled and some paramedics are working up to 15-hour shifts.

"They are exhausted, they are frustrated and they are burned out," Parker said.

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