Alberta asks Ottawa for help to airlift COVID-19 patients out of the province

The UCP government has formally requested help from the federal government to lessen pressure on Alberta's health-care system, which is overburdened with COVID-19 patients.

Province has also formally requested additional critical care staff

Staff members work at an ICU in an Alberta hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff members work at an Alberta intensive care unit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta's government has formally requested that Ottawa provide aero-medical evacuation capability to relocate COVID-19 patients out of the province, and staff to assist in its critical care response. (Submitted by AHS)

Alberta's UCP government is asking Ottawa for help to lessen pressure on the province's health-care system, which is overburdened with COVID-19 patients.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver formally requested aid and an immediate meeting with federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair in a Tuesday letter. 

He asked for the federal government to provide aero-medical evacuation capability to relocate patients out of Alberta, and intensive care unit (ICU) registered nurses and respiratory therapists to assist in Alberta's critical care response. 

"Federal assistance in these two areas has the potential to create significant relief to the health-care system," McIver wrote.

Alberta's ICU capacity is currently at 87 per cent, but without added surge beds — which health-care workers have said are not adequately staffed — the province would be at 169 per cent of its baseline capacity. 

There are 222 COVID-19 patients in the province's ICUs. There are nearly 1,000 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, and the province has identified more than 20,900 active cases.

Surgeries have been cancelled across the province to free up health-care workers to deal with the crisis. 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro was notably not a signatory on the letter. The embattled minister was shuffled into another cabinet portfolio on Tuesday. Jason Copping is taking over the key cabinet position.

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Ottawa offered help before election but Alberta waited

Blair said federal officials have offered help to their Alberta counterparts throughout 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 said in a statement posted to social media.

Alberta asked other provinces for help last week when it declared a state of public health emergency. Neighbouring provinces Saskatchewan and British Columbia had said they could not offer assistance due to demands on their own health-care systems, but distant provinces like Ontario have offered help. 

At that time, Premier Jason Kenney reintroduced new gathering restrictions and launched a form of a COVID-19 vaccine passport, a step he had long promised not to take. He said the health-care system was at risk of imminent collapse.

Tuesday's request came the day after the federal election, and Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd questioned the timing.

"Albertans should be appalled that Ric McIver waited until after the federal election to make this call to Ottawa. Once again, the UCP is focused on politics instead of the terrible price that Albertans are paying right now, with record ICU admissions and thousands of life-saving surgeries cancelled. It's disgustingly cynical," he said in an emailed release.

Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University, said he believes the delay was a deliberate strategy.

"They were putting partisan political interests ahead of the health and wellbeing of Albertans. There's no other way of describing it," he said.

McIver said Tuesday afternoon in a post to Twitter that he didn't know which minister to send the official request to as he didn't know who would win Monday's election. He said that he was only told on Monday that he needed to send a letter to request help.

Kenney told Albertans during a Tuesday news conference that he is familiar with how these requests for assistance work but he said leading up to the election the federal government was in "caretaker mode." He did not clarify as to how those circumstances had changed after the election as the new federal cabinet has not yet been appointed. 

"Let me be clear, we do not currently need this support, but it's prudent to plan for things in case we reach a worst-case scenario," the premier said. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has said the current spike began when Kenney lifted almost all COVID-19 health restrictions on July 1, faster than any other province.

In early summer, Kenney announced that COVID-19 was effectively defeated and that even if cases rose in the future, they could be accommodated by the health system.

He said he was so sure COVID-19 was finished that he didn't envision needing a fallback plan, and accused journalists of fearmongering for discussing the possibility of a dangerous fourth wave.

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Alberta government says the request is for planning purposes, but doctors say measures like out-of-province patient transfers and military help were needed weeks ago.

His government then did not act during July and August as case numbers spiralled.

Last week, the leaders of four unions representing thousands of health-care workers begged the premier to ask for help from the military and Red Cross. 

Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary ER doctor with health advocacy group Protect Our Province, said Alberta can use any help the government can offer. He said he'd also like to see the federal government offer national standards for pandemic health policy.

"Somebody in Nova Scotia is more protected than somebody in Alberta, and that's just not fair," he said.

'It's heartbreaking'

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease physician in Edmonton, said the timing of this request is painful for health-care workers.

"We were calling for pleas for assistance a week ago, that we needed the military to come help transport patients, if possible to provide some clinical assistance on the ground," Schwartz said. "More Albertans have died in the meantime. This really speaks to the fact that the people in charge don't care about us … this is absolutely too late."

Schwartz said the province is just "a handful of patients" away from having to enact triage protocols, which means health-care workers will be tasked with making decisions as to which patients will be given life-saving care.

"What that means is there's a number of patients who will not be able to get care … that's truly tragic, especially when you consider that this was all avoidable, and that with government action to stop the spread of infection these patients could have been saved," he said.

"It's heartbreaking, it's infuriating, the degree of incompetence and malfeasance of this government."

With files from CBC's Jennifer Lee, Bryan Labby and The Canadian Press