Calgary

Alberta lifting restrictions 'too early,' doctors and nurses warn

Many Alberta doctors and nurses say hospitals are still under extreme pressure and they're worried the province is going too far, too fast with its plans to lift COVID-19 measures.

There are 1,615 people with COVID-19 in Alberta hospitals including 135 in ICU

A staff member works at an Alberta hospital intensive care unit. Premier Jason Kenney announced a three-step plan to eliminate public health measures on Tuesday. (AHS)

Many Alberta doctors and nurses say hospitals are still under extreme pressure and they're worried the province is going too far, too fast with its plans to lift COVID-19 measures.

Premier Jason Kenney unveiled a sweeping three-step plan to lift public health restrictions on Tuesday.

The province's vaccine passport system, known as the restrictions exemption program, was eliminated within hours of the announcement

As of next Monday, children of all ages will no longer be required to wear masks in schools, and kids under 12 will also be exempt from the provincial mask mandate. Some capacity limits are also reduced.

If hospitalizations are trending down, other restrictions will be lifted on March 1, including the provincewide mask mandate, gathering restrictions and remaining capacity limits.

"I'm worried it's very early," said Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, a general internist at the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary.

"I am still admitting COVID patients every day. I'm still signing death certificates for people with COVID. We still have people with COVID coming out of the ICU months and weeks after admission. We still have COVID all over the hospital."

In addition, Fabreau said, there's a glut of very sick patients who've had their care for other health problems delayed.

"On the ground, we are not seeing any relief."

Each of Calgary's hospitals is operating at over 100 per cent capacity, according to Fabreau, and the pandemic response tent at the Peter Lougheed Centre is busier than it's ever been.

"It is completely full of patients that are emergency department patients and even some admitted patients that are just overflowing," he said.

Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, internal medicine specialist at the Peter Lougheed Centre, says hospital units are still filled with COVID-19 patients and with an influx of people who've had treatment for their other health problems delayed. (CBC)

'Disappointing' and 'reckless'

Alberta's COVID-related hospitalizations remain higher than during any other wave of the pandemic.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID increased by 81 patients on Tuesday, from 1,542 (including 118 in intensive care) to 1,623 (including 129 in ICU). On Wednesday, total hospitalizations dipped slightly to 1,615 but ICU admissions increased to 135.

The timing is a major sticking point for the union representing Alberta's registered nurses.

"It's incredibly disappointing. I think it's reckless. But I can't say I was surprised," said United Nurses of Alberta president Heather Smith.

"I think this government wants to prove it can do things faster than anybody else even if it's not the right thing to do."

When asked about the hospitalization numbers during Tuesday's news conference, Kenney said the rate of new COVID-related hospital admissions has dropped from roughly 36 cases per million on Jan. 26  to 27 cases per million on Feb 8. This number is tracked on the Alberta Health website as a rolling seven-day average.

He said officials will be monitoring the pressure on hospitals as restrictions are eased.

"If the current trends reverse themselves and if we see a significant and sustained increase in pressure on our hospitals, we may have to pause some of these measures."

No clear metrics

Dr. Noel Gibney, professor emeritus in the department of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, is also perplexed by the timing of the plan.

"To reduce the public health restrictions at a time when we have unprecedented congestion in our hospitals, because of patients with COVID, really doesn't make much logical sense to me," he said.

Gibney worries removing the restrictions exemption program may send the message that the pandemic is over when it's not. But his biggest concern is the plan to lift masking rules and gathering limits. 

"Potentially we're going to find ourselves in a prolonged wave of Omicron at a time when really that's not necessary. It shouldn't happen and it is preventable."

Gibney said the plan is also missing a set of transparent thresholds that would need to be met before moving to the next stage.

Monitoring emerging trends will be key to moving forward, according to the president of the Alberta Medical Association, Dr. Vesta Michelle Warren.

"I feel that it might be a bit early and potentially more aggressive than I would personally like to see," she said.

While Warren understands the provincial government is trying to balance a number of factors as it eases restrictions, she said no one wants a repeat of the Kenney government's "open for summer" plan last year.

This time, she hopes the province keeps a close eye on data, including hospitalizations, wastewater levels and the number of cases family doctors are seeing in the community.

"We need to have a Plan B. If this doesn't work, if it is too early, what do we do? So I did hear that and I think that's the one thing we didn't hear last year," she said.

"At some point, we have to try to reopen. I am hopeful that this time around we've learned to pay attention and to react before it's too far gone the other way."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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