Alberta Acted Like COVID Was Over. Now Its Health Care System ‘On Brink of Collapse’

Alberta has cancelled all elective surgeries in the Calgary region as COVID-19 hospitalizations soar.
September 10, 2021, 12:58pm
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at the Premier's annual Calgary Stampede breakfast in July.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney dropped nearly all restrictions in time for the annual Calgary Stampede in July. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh 

A western Canadian province postponed all elective surgeries in its biggest city Thursday after seeing 18 COVID-related deaths in 24 hours.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) is putting off elective surgeries and many outpatient procedures in the Calgary region for the rest of the week to focus on intensive care units, as COVID-19 hospitalizations soar.

“Our health care system truly is at the brink of collapse right now,” said Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease clinician and researcher at the University of Alberta.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday the province reported 18 COVID-related deaths in the previous 24 hours. Nine more died the next day, bringing the provincial death toll to 2,434. 

Doctors are calling for mandatory vaccine passports, mandatory masks in schools, and a return of contact tracing. But Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced no new measures at a press conference Thursday and would not say whether he will consider vaccine passports in the future.

“I think it’s pretty obvious with this non-news conference today that these leaders don’t give a fuck about Albertans,” said Joe Vipond, an emergency room physician at Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital. “It’s tragic to say, and I hate to use an expletive; I recognize it’s unprofessional. But man, these guys are so unprofessional, I don’t even know what to say.”

AHS already postponed between 30 and 60 percent of elective surgeries (non-emergency surgeries that are scheduled in advance) across each of its five regional health zones last week. One man said his brain tumour surgery has been “cancelled indefinitely,” and doctors say thousands are facing similar scenarios.

The province has added 93 ICU beds, including 59 “surge spaces,” over the last week to increase capacity. Of 266 beds now in operation, 87 per cent are full.

Alberta had 679 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 154 in ICU, at the end of Wednesday. The province has 15,977 active cases, the highest in Canada, with most attributed to variants. Alberta and neighbouring Saskatchewan both have infection rates that more than double any other province.

Alberta has one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates, second only to Saskatchewan, with 59 per cent of eligible residents fully vaccinated. The government has tried to remedy this by offering people $100 to get the shot.

The province previously held a lottery to sway the vaccine-hesitant, with prizes including passes to the Calgary Stampede—a large gathering in July that ended up spreading COVID.

Some are unlikely to be swayed. Last week, AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu issued a plea for peace after people gathered outside of Alberta hospitals to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Yiu said physicians and staff were yelled at and harassed and some felt unsafe walking to and from work.

“We are also aware of some patients and families who were obstructed as they entered facilities to receive care,” Yiu wrote. “That is uncalled for and extremely unsettling.”

Premier Jason Kenney, who was on vacation for more than three weeks as fourth-wave cases rose exponentially, has been chastised by his own party members for implementing COVID-19 restrictions, despite consistently having some of the loosest restrictions and highest infection rates in the country. In May, Alberta had the most per-capita daily cases in North America.

The province dropped nearly all restrictions in time for July 1 Canada Day celebrations and promised residents the “best summer ever”—a slogan the governing United Conservative Party printed on hats worn by its own communications staff. The party sold the caps for $40 apiece through its website but recently took the link down.

The province reintroduced a number of restrictions Saturday, including mandatory masks in indoor public spaces and workplaces, as well as ending liquor service at 10 p.m. for restaurants and bars.

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