Alberta health-care workers desperate for COVID-19 help: 'We are treading water as furiously as we can'

WATCH ABOVE: As the COVID-19 crisis intensifies in Alberta, the number of available ICU beds in the province is decreasing. Workers on the front lines say they need more staff and that patient care is suffering. Breanna Karstens-Smith takes us inside Alberta's hospitals.

Health-care workers on the frontlines in Alberta say help to deal with the immense pressures on hospitals amid the fourth wave of COVID-19 cannot come fast enough. That, as Alberta identified 1,336 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 20 additional deaths from the disease. (Wednesday’s full COVID-19 data below).

“We are treading water as furiously as we can with this big tsunami that’s trying to drown us,” said Dr. Paul Parks, president of emergency medicine with the Alberta Medical Association and an emergency room physician in Medicine Hat, Alta.

“I really don’t think we need ventilators or we need space or rooms or beds or materials. We need human beings for sure, for sure. And that’s been clear to us that for the last month or longer as the numbers are climbing.”

There are now 1,040 people in hospital with COVID-19, the highest hospitalization number the province has seen since the pandemic started in March 2020.

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Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver penned a letter Tuesday to the federal government asking for air transportation help if necessary to move patients to care facilities outside Alberta, and for more intensive care nurses and respiratory therapists.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair responded on social media saying “federal officials have been engaging their counterparts in Alberta for the past week to offer help.

“I have made it clear that when a request is received, it will be approved. We will work together to provide for the people across Alberta.”

As of Wednesday morning, Alberta Health Services said there were 348 ICU beds open in Alberta and that 41 additional surge spaces have been opened in the past seven days. ICU capacity is at 87 per cent, including the additional surge beds. Without the additional surge spaces, AHS said provincial ICU capacity would be at 174 per cent.

There were 302 total patients in ICU across Alberta Wednesday, the vast majority of whom are COVID-19 positive, AHS said in a statement. This is the highest number of people that have been in ICU since the pandemic began, AHS said.

According to Alberta Health data released Wednesday afternoon, 230 people were being treated for COVID-19 in intensive care.

“It’s disheartening that we’ve gotten to this point,” Parks said Wednesday morning, adding the request for help is “better late than never.”

“It’s very clear on the front lines and in the ICU, basically in the entire hospital, that we need help for sure. Our numbers continue to climb and we are going to have to do something more drastic so that we can save lives and get through this wave.”

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Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, had a similar reaction to the request for help.

“Finally,” she said in an interview with Global News from New Brunswick Wednesday morning.

“Every day we hear from nurses and their colleagues, physicians — they’re at their end. They don’t know how they’re going to handle their next shift, never mind the next day.

“Help from the federal government is needed immediately.”

When Premier Jason Kenney announced additional public health restrictions last Wednesday evening, he said the province may run out of staffed intensive care beds within the next 10 days, which would be this Saturday.

AHS has a critical care triage protocol to guide the province’s response should the demand for life-sustaining critical care support become greater than the available resources. It essentially guides health-care workers on making the difficult decisions on who receives care and who doesn’t, should it come to that.

On Tuesday, AHS said it has not yet had to implement the protocol but continues to education physicians and staff on the document.

“Those working in that crisis, I’m holding on to my breath,” Silas said. “I’m just hoping that they will not have to use those protocols. It’s dire.

“We need to do everything we can as a country to make sure that a doctor doesn’t have to choose who’s going to get care and who doesn’t.”

Dr. Brian Buchanan, a critical care intensivist at the University of Alberta hospital, said the current situation is “defeating.”

He said hospitals are seeing a lot of people who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated who are becoming very, very sick.

“We have nurses and physicians and respiratory therapists and social workers and on and on who are trying to service a large volume of critically ill patients,” Buchanan said.

Doing that alone is a “herculean task,” he said, never mind the trickle effect it has on the health-care system.

“This always comes at a cost. And it comes at a cost of displaying other kinds of care, it comes as a cost of just demoralization of health-care workers,” he said.

“I don’t think that this current pace is sustainable.”

Parks does not think Alberta has yet reached the peak of the fourth wave of COVID-19, largely driven by the Delta variant. He said health-care workers can only do so much.

“People are showing every single day that they’re going above and beyond. They’re doing 15-hour shifts, coming in double time for the next day when it was their day off to help.

“The fatigue — after doing this, hitting the fourth wave — it just gets harder and harder to do this.”

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Parks is pleading with the public to do their part.

“We need people to avoid large crowds, (wear) masks, get vaccinated… It sounds like a broken record, maybe people roll their eyes, we’ve heard that. But I can’t stress enough — we have to stop the number of cases… because we haven’t hit our peak in Alberta yet.”

Silas would also like to see more people roll up their sleeve and get vaccinated, and a bit more compassion for those working in hospitals.

“Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was saying, ‘We’re all in this together?’ We’re going to put the pots and pans at 7 p.m., encourage our health-care workers, we’re drawing rainbows everywhere.

“We need to bring back that feeling. We cannot have demonstrations of angry people on the streets.

“We have to bring back that hope and inspire the health-care workers trying to save lives in those buildings.”

Alberta identified 1,336 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The province’s total number of active cases now sits at 20,304, a slight decrease from 20,917 active cases on Tuesday.

Hospitalizations and ICU admissions continue to climb, with 1,040 now in hospital with the disease. Of those, 230 people are being treated in intensive care.

Twenty additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.

Alberta Health confirmed one of the deaths was in an 18-year-old woman in the Central zone. This marks Alberta’s youngest COVID-19 death since the pandemic began. She had pre-existing conditions, Alberta Health said.

Three other deaths were reported in the zone: two men in their 70s with pre-existing conditions and a man in his 50s with no known pre-existing conditions.

Five deaths were reported in the Edmonton zone. A woman in her 50s, a woman in her 90s, a man in his 60s and a man and a woman in their 70s have died. All cases had known pre-existing conditions.

There were eight deaths reported in the Calgary zone, all with pre-existing conditions. A woman in her 80s, a man and a woman in their 70s, two men and a woman in their 90s and two men in their 80s have died.

Three people with pre-existing conditions died in the North zone: a woman in her 60s, a man in his 50s and a woman in her 60s have died.

Of the active cases, 5,606 are in the Edmonton zone, 5,389 are in the Calgary zone, 3,663 are in the North zone, 3,515 are in the Central zone, 2,114 are in the South zone and 17 are in unknown zones.

Of Alberta’s eligible population 12 and older, 81.8 per cent have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 73 per cent are fully vaccinated.

– with files from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED

With files from Aaron D’Andrea and Heather Yourex-West, Global News.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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