Doctors say Alberta restrictions not enough to reduce COVID-19 strain on hospitals

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EDMONTON — Two emergency room doctors say Alberta's increased public health restrictions don't go far enough to deal with rising COVID-19 cases that are already straining hospitals in the province.

The government brought in tighter restrictions Tuesday that include a ban on gatherings in people's homes and changes for schools, churches, restaurants and retailers.

Dr. Shazma Mithani, who works at two Edmonton hospitals, said she saw first-hand why more restrictions were necessary a day earlier when she arrived for her shift at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

"I saw the most COVID patients ever," Mithani said Wednesday in an interview with The Canadian Press. "I didn't even see that many patients that shift because we were so bed-blocked."

Some patients, she explained, were taking up emergency department beds because there weren't enough staffed beds available in the ward they needed.

Mithani said she saw about 10 or 11 patients that night.

"Three of them were confirmed COVID and three were presumed COVID ... and one of them I actually had to put a breathing tube in and send to the ICU," she said.

"It's here. It's just the beginning."

Alberta Health reported 1,265 new cases on Wednesday — the seventh consecutive day with numbers above the 1,100 mark. There were 355 patients in hospital, 71 of them in intensive care. Eight more people died, bringing that total to 500.

Mithani, who's also a spokeswoman for the emergency medicine section of the Alberta Medical Association, said the rising numbers have been hitting Edmonton particularly hard.

There were 175 COVID-19 patients in Edmonton hospitals, with 40 in intensive care. In Calgary, there were 121 infected patients in hospitals and 20 were in intensive care.

Dr. Joe Vipond, who works at Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary, said he hasn't worked an ER shift in about a week, but noted that he's had COVID-19 patients every day in the last month.

"I've had two deaths in a month," said Vipond, who added he typically only sees a few deaths a year in the emergency department.

Both Vipond and Mithani said they would have liked to see stronger restrictions.

"We're now at the stage that nothing short of a strong lockdown is going to help," said Vipond. "These middle measures are not going to do it, unfortunately."

Mithani said the restrictions simply turn earlier recommendations into rules.

The only positive step, she said, was banning indoor gatherings, which she suggested should have happened long ago.

Dr. Daniel Gregson, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, agreed it was good to see recommendations on gatherings turned into actual restrictions.

"The other thing we've done is moved to mandatory masking from a suggestion to a requirement," he said. "That's a good thing as well."

However, Gregson said some areas have been left open to interpretation.

"They've said 10 (people) for weddings and 10 for funerals, which is good to have an absolute number because people focus on what they can do," he said. "But other settings such as faith-based activities, which can be fairly widely interpreted, are not limited to that 10.

"That's a concern. A lot of our problems have been in group settings where people are not using appropriate precautions ... and that really translates into transmissions in households."

Mithani added that the decisions don't appear to be based on data, since contact tracing has broken down and up to 80 per cent of cases have no information about where they were contracted.

"I'm really disappointed with the half measures that were put in," she said. 

"I, 100 per cent, understand there needs to be a balance between the economy and managing this pandemic, but we are now at a point where our health-care system is about to break and that needs to be made the priority right now.

"Our economy relies on the health of Albertans."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2020.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press