An increase in coronavirus cases has pushed the health care system in the Canadian province of Alberta to the brink of collapse as health workers struggle with increasing fatigue and a growing anti-vaccine movement in the region.
The province warned this week that its ICU capacity was strained, with more people requiring intensive care than at any other time during the pandemic – almost all unvaccinated.
“It’s not easy going to work every day and watching people in their 30s die,” an ICU nurse in Edmonton told the Guardian. “Having to help a family say goodbye and then go through the actions required at the end of someone’s life is worse than anyone can imagine.”
Alberta has long boasted of its loose coronavirus restrictions – including advertising for the previous months as the “best summer ever” as it rolled back the few restrictions. It has also been the site of North America’s highest caseload.
In a province with a long history of skepticism towards the government, the pandemic has become a breeding ground for protests and anti-vaccine rhetoric, including from elected officials, firefighters and police. During the ongoing federal election, the People’s Party of Canada, a fringe right-wing party that has come out against public health measures, has seen its largest support base in rural Alberta.
That skepticism about masks and vaccines has cost a hefty price, frontline workers say.
On Monday, more than 60 doctors of infectious diseases wrote a letter to Prime Minister Jason Kenney, warning of a catastrophic outcome if the province did not address the escalating caseload.
“Our healthcare system is really on the verge of collapse,” the doctors wrote. “Hospitals and ICUs across the province are under enormous strain and have reached a point where it is unclear whether or how much longer we can offer Albertan’s safe care.”
The province has canceled optional surgeries as resources and space have been allocated to Covid patients. ICU beds, meanwhile, are at capacity.
“As soon as those breathing tubes come out, we’re throwing people out of the ICU to make room for someone else,” said another nurse. “It’s going to be gloomy. It’s hard to see. ”
Medical staff in Edmonton, the provincial capital, warned that they would soon have to triage inpatients to determine who could receive lifesaving care.
Kenney, who has not appeared in public for weeks, held emergency meetings with senior officials on Tuesday. The province announced a proof of vaccination card with plans to release a QR code in the coming weeks.
Nearly 79% of eligible Albanians over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 71% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated – one of the lowest rates in the country. On average, 78% of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated.
While these rates dwarf those in the United States, the relentless proliferation of the Delta variant highlights how catastrophic outbreaks can occur if even a small fraction of the population resists public health measures.
According to the province’s chief medical officer, about 90% of people at the ICUs are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
“No one can ever understand what it is like to have a Zoom call with a family member whose patient dies. No one will ever understand that, ”said a third nurse. “It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever done. And I think we all change a little bit from this very intense grief to this anger – because it feels really preventable. ”
Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor in Calgary and vocal critic of the government, called the recent rise the “deliberately cruel” wave.
“This has always been part of the plan — to let younger, low-risk people get infected to build up crew immunity. I just think they did not realize how much illness would be due to it. ”
He says increasing pressure from a voter base skeptical of public health restrictions prompted officials to declare Alberta “open for summer” on July 1 and removed many of the mitigating measures they had taken. The government also said it would no longer require people who test positive for Covid-19 to be isolated — a plan it was quickly scrapped.
“The vast majority of Albanians are good citizens who believe in collective action, who believe in governments. Unfortunately, the governing party’s political basis cannot be described as such, ”he said.
One nurse pointed out the bitter irony that those most skeptical of public health measures are those most affected by the current wave.
“All of these decisions by the government must clearly satisfy their electorate,” she said. “But what a lack of insight to see that it’s their base that dies and makes us resort to battlefield medicine.”
In recent weeks, a number of anti-vaccine protests have been held across the country, including in front of hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton, amplifying exhaustion and frustration from frontline health workers.
“I have no more energy to make sense of it anymore,” the nurse said. “I hardly work as it is, because we pour from the cup that has a hole. We never get to fill it. ”
Instead, nurses say they are left to plead for a narrow minority of the public, who increasingly end up in the hospital.
“We’re just asking them to trust us one more time – we need them so our whole healthcare system does not collapse,” she said. “And I’m worried – because I do not know how to reach these people.”