Ottawa must show leadership and help handle the COVID-19 crisis in Alberta, health-care advocates say.
The suggestion comes in response to Alberta’s formal request to the federal government for assistance in managing its fourth wave, which has seen hospitals pushed to the limits and protective measures reinforced following a summer with relaxed restrictions.
Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, told Global News that Ottawa can help by coordinating health-care resources, allocating additional funds and by bringing in the military.
The federal government could also even “bring in staff just to do the lunches for those working 24 hours,” she said, adding Ottawa needs to better coordinate health care in a time of crisis.
“It doesn’t make sense that we are one of the largest workforces in Canada … and there’s no planning nationally, there is little planning provincially on how we’re going to distribute and how many nurses that we need in five years and 10 years and how we retain them,” Silas said.
In Canada, managing health care is a provincial responsibility, and Alberta has been in the national spotlight for weeks for its handling of the pandemic. Vaccination rates began to slow after the province eased nearly all public health measures in July, which then lead to a spike in cases and hospitalizations.
Throughout the pandemic, Ottawa has supported the provinces by allocating funds and offering support like contact tracing, testing assistance and outbreak management. But largely the pandemic has been managed differently by each province.
On Tuesday, Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver wrote a letter to federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, asking for help with patient transfers and critical care staff. He also asked for an immediate meeting to discuss the requests.
In a response on Twitter, Blair said officials have been engaging with their Alberta counterparts for the past week.
“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,” he wrote.
Right now, Alberta has the highest number of intensive care unit patients in the province since the pandemic began. There are 294 patients in the ICU, and the province continues to expand its ICU capacity by reallocating spaces.
Alberta currently has 335 ICU beds open, including 162 additional spaces. Alberta Health Services (AHS) has opened 35 additional ICU surge spaces in the past week. ICU capacity is at 88 per cent, but would be 170 per cent without those additional spaces, AHS said Tuesday.
Dr. Paul Parks, president of emergency medicine at the Alberta Medical Association and an emergency medicine physician in Medicine Hat, told Global News while it’s “disheartening” to have gotten to this point, help is needed.
“I really don’t think we need ventilators or we need space, or rooms, or beds or materials,” he said. “We need human beings for sure, and that’s been clear to us for the last month or longer as the numbers are climbing.”
However, Canada is facing a nursing shortage.
Statistics Canada reported recently that nearly one in five job vacancies in Canada in early 2021 is in health care and social assistance. Those sectors experienced the largest losses year-over-year compared to all other sectors.
On Sept. 18, several unions in Alberta issued a joint letter to Premier Jason Kenney warning that the health-care system was “collapsing in front of our eyes,” and that there were no more nurses to deploy.
Furthermore, Alberta will soon run out of ICU space, said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary.
“All indicators are that we’re continuing to stress the health-care system, we continue to need to find space and it’s likely a matter of days before we will have to look for that space out of the province,” he told Global News on Tuesday.
While Parks understands the crisis at hand, he hopes Ottawa can come through.
“We are treading water as seriously as we can with this big tsunami that’s trying to drown us,” he said.
“We also worry that we’re asking for help now, but it’s not clear that our government is implementing any really positive public health measures that are going to slow this wave … we really need human resources and supports, but we’re worried it’s not going to be there.”
In addition to Parks and Sidas, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is also calling on Ottawa to act.
“COVID-19 doesn’t recognize geographical borders. When one jurisdiction is in crisis, it affects all Canadians,” said CMA President Dr. Katharine Smart, in a statement to Global News.
“The CMA is calling on the federal government to deploy all the levers possible to support the people of Alberta – from deploying military resources to health workers on federal staff. Timing is critical – people’s lives are on the line.”
Looking back at the past 19 months, Silas recalls when nurses from Newfoundland and Labrador went to Ontario to help the province handle its surge of COVID-19.
That move gave hope to front-line workers, she said, and she believes Ottawa can help encourage the same now.
“Remember at the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone was saying we’re all in this together … we need to bring back that feeling,” she said.
“We cannot have demonstrations of angry people on the street, we have to bring back that hope and inspire the health-care workers trying to save lives in those buildings.”
–With files from Emily Mertz
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