Armed forces help not enough to combat overburdened hospitals in Sask.: physicians

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been tasked with assisting hospitals in Saskatchewan, but physicians say that without additional COVID-19 measures restricting gathering sizes, the help won't last long.

Calls for additional restrictions being ignored: medical association president

Canadian Armed Forces critical care nursing officers and a CAF Senior Nursing Officer in Edmonton to help Alberta Health Services. Officials confirmed Armed Forces personnel will be assisting in Saskatchewan. (Alberta Health Services)

Health-care workers in Saskatchewan hospitals and intensive care units shaken by COVID-19 case numbers will be relieved to hear they'll receive support from the Canadian military, the head of the Canadian Medical Association said — but it might only be a momentary break in the battle. 

Physicians and medical associations have lambasted provincial leadership over the past week for playing politics during the pandemic and for late or absent public health measures.

On Friday evening, federal politicians announced on Twitter that the Canadian Armed Forces were being deployed to assist in Saskatchewan hospitals. On Saturday, the Armed Forces confirmed to CBC News that up to six critical care nursing officers would be working in ICUs.

"You know when you're needing the military to help you, when you're having to transfer patients out of province, when you're hearing from your ICU physicians that they're starting to use laundry rooms as spaces to care for patients I think it's quite fair to say that you have a crisis on your hands and it's an all hands-on deck approach," Dr. Katherine Smart, the national medical association president, told CBC's David Common on Rosemary Barton Live.

It's welcome support for now, but without action from the government, like public health strategies, it's a surface solution, Smart says.

"Six nurses, that's really enough to staff two beds over two days. So it's certainly not going to solve the problem...the root cause here is the number of COVID cases and the escalation of case counts in the province."

Physicians like Smart — and provincial chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab — have pointed to gathering limits as the next step to bending the curve. But Smart said the provincial government is "refusing to listen" to the advice from medical providers, nurses and the medical health officer. 

It's why she urged Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to make changes in a steadfast statement for citizens in the province who "deserve better." 

She said health-care professionals have been calling for action for weeks, only to watch the hospitals sink deeper into disarray.

"When you're at the point where you're needing to actually move your patients elsewhere, it tells you your system is collapsing," she said.

Smart, originally from Saskatchewan, said it's "heartbreaking" to see people at home feeling "helpless" while waiting for the government to take meaningful action. 

CAF is necessary relief for frontline staff

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine agrees with Smart. He said that help from the Armed Forces, combined with patient transfers to Ontario, are a much-needed relief for frontline workers—but it's late and it's not enough. 

He mentioned a Twitter post from federal health minister Patty Hajdu on Sept. 24 that offered supports to Saskatchewan during "this health crisis."

"It took precisely 30 days, to today, to hear that we are getting six personnel, medical personnel, from Canadian Armed Forces," he said. "And in that 30 days there have been many lives lost in Saskatchewan."

According to the Canadian government's epidemiology report, last updated on Friday, Saskatchewan had the highest rate of deaths over the past 14 days among provinces—about six per day. 

"Had we taken that invitation, that was given 30 days ago...we could have prevented some of those deaths."

Muhajarine said that while the support is deeply appreciated, he doesn't believe six people are enough to give the province the help it needs, especially in ICUs which require specialized care. 

"We probably could use about six or seven times as many as we are hearing today," he said. "It's not only actually sort of having more assistance, but it is also relieving people who have been 100 per cent for many, many days and weeks."

'Preventable and predictable'

It didn't have to reach the point of calling for military help, sending patients across the country and cancelling surgeries, Dr. Hassan Masri, an ICU physician in Saskatoon and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, told Common.

He's been watching the pandemic's effect on hospitals unfold in front of him and has been outspoken about his frustration with the government's response. 

"This is something that was completely preventable and predictable: predictable because the lack of public health measures gets you here and preventable because public health measures would have prevented us from being here," Masri said.

The province has already began triaging their hospital services by limiting procedures and surgeries. Masri said that could escalate if several dozen patients aren't transferred out of province over the next couple of weeks, especially if the province continues on the same path.

Last week, COVID-19 modelling predictions foreshadowed a dire winter without policy and procedural changes.

"If we don't move patients, we're going to move to a different level of triage, which is a very tragic and scary one," Masri said. 

"Which is where we literally have to deny people care and physicians would have to choose who gets to live and who gets to die and who gets that ICU bed and who doesn't."

On Thursday, physicians including Masri called out the government for cancelling patient transfers despite preparations having already been made in Saskatchewan and Ontario, social media posts claimed.

"We had already picked the patients that were supposed to be transferred on Thursday. And the physicians in Ontario, our colleagues, were already prepared to receive patients," he said. 

"That process was cancelled by somebody in the government. The government tried to spin it as [though] it was a confusion. There was no confusion."

In a statement to media, the provincial government said it would confirm all out-of-province patient transfers and "all other sources, such as unofficial and unverified social media posts should be disregarded."

On Friday, Saskatchewan expected two additional patient transfers over Saturday and Sunday. As of Sunday, eight patients have been transferred to Ontario, according to the Saskatchewan COVID-19 dashboard. Ontario has the capacity to receive up to nine patients between Monday and Wednesday, if needed.

With files from Rosemary Barton Live and Olivier Daoust


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