As It Happens·Q&A

'This is not normal,' Edmonton doctor says as hospitals fill up with unvaccinated patients

Alberta has been facing thousands of new coronavirus cases since last week — and according to frontline workers, it's mostly in unvaccinated people. Dr. Aisha Mirza has been talking about it with her COVID-19 patients in the emergency department at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton.

As COVID cases soar in Alberta, Dr. Aisha Mirza blames fear and misinformation

Dr. Aisha Mirza is an emergency physician at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton. (Submitted by Dr. Aisha Mirza)

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Alberta has had thousands of new coronavirus cases since last week — and according to frontline workers, they're mostly among unvaccinated people.

Dr. Aisha Mirza has been talking about vaccines with her COVID-19 patients in the emergency department at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton. She says most are not opposed to getting vaccinated, but have been hesitant because of mixed messaging.

When vaccines arrived earlier this year, tens of millions of Canadians got their doses. But now the country is in its fourth wave, fuelled in large part by the more contagious delta variant. Alberta is leading in daily new counts, reporting 3,056 new cases over the last three days, for a total of 11,426 as of Monday.

Mirza spoke with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong about the "disheartening" fourth wave. Here is part of their conversation.

Give us an idea of what it's been like in your emergency department over these past couple of weeks.

The emergency department has been going up and down over the last 18 months and I can honestly say that there [were] a few weeks there where we felt like things were going back to normal. I mean, who doesn't want the pandemic to end?

And in the last two weeks, I guess, this is it. This is the fourth wave. You know it's happening when things start changing in the department.

In what way?

You start seeing people coming in with respiratory illnesses again and they're very sick. They have COVID and they have delta. 

But now it's happening to people who could have taken that one extra step that they didn't do. And that's the common ground that I'm seeing.

That's the vaccine you're talking about?

We're having patients who just didn't go get the vaccine, and I don't even understand it. 

These aren't anti-vaxxers. These are just people who didn't make it a priority and/or our province just didn't give them the right message. They're getting mixed messages that COVID isn't that bad, COVID doesn't really exist [or] the pandemic is gone.

And we're still in it. It's really frustrating.

We have these patients who ... are still adamant that the COVID vaccine causes deaths and somehow there's a conspiracy that we're hiding this. And when I hear these things coming out of people's mouths, it's like being slapped in the face as a front-line worker.- Dr. Aisha Mirza, emergency physician


You use the word "disheartening" to describe it. How is it for you and your colleagues?

I can feel it in the air. We're feeling pretty depressed.

It's like we haven't learned anything and we feel like our health-care leaders [and] our government leaders aren't stepping up and giving a consistent message to the people of Alberta that we still need to take precautions. 

They're saying: We're going to remove restrictions, we're going to leave it up to the schools to decide whether you need to take any precautions like masking, [and] masking isn't absolutely necessary now.

People are in the waiting room way too long. That's not normal. I'm showing up to a shift and hearing that there are five nurses short. Now, I don't know if that's because they're sick, they're leaving the province, they're leaving acute care in general, or they're just burned out — but we're short and now we don't have beds to use for those patients that are in the waiting room. 

And what do you do for yourself in that case? How do you take care of yourself, knowing that we're still very much in the thick of this, and this is going to go on for some time?

I remind myself that I'm not a hero — no matter what the province says. 

I do have to take care of myself and I have to take care of my family. And that means I have to check myself and make sure that I have the empathy that I need to take care of the patients. If that means I have to reduce the number of shifts that I do in the year, then that's what I do. 

I don't have my usual coping mechanisms. I can't travel and just take a break from my work — I have to stay in Edmonton. For a while, I couldn't even really play sports. Now that's coming back with outdoor sports, so that helps. 

You want to be part of the solution. It's as though we're part of this horrible group project and some of us are trying to do all the right things. And then we have this other set of people who are either wilfully ignorant or delusional about what the pandemic means right now in society.

About 80 per cent of eligible Albertans have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and almost 70 per cent have had two doses. Of Alberta's total population, about 60 per cent have had both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. (AHS)

You talk about some of these patients that come in that aren't necessarily anti-vaxxers; they just didn't make it a priority. What did they tell you as you're beginning to treat them for COVID about the decisions that led them there?

I do have lots of empathy for them because no one wants to be sick. No one wants to be in that position. And you can clearly see that they have lots of regret, and we can't go back and make them have the vaccine now. 

But sometimes ... my empathy wanes when we have these patients who either have the symptoms and don't want to be tested, or are being told they have COVID but don't believe it, or are still adamant that the COVID vaccine causes deaths and somehow there's a conspiracy that we're hiding this. And when I hear these things coming out of people's mouths, it's like being slapped in the face as a front-line worker.

And yet [around] 70 per cent of eligible Albertans are fully vaccinated…. What do you think is the main thing keeping that number from getting any higher?

I think there's a lot of fear and I think there's a lot of misinformation out there. 

Meanwhile, you know, there are only a fairly limited number of public health measures left in Alberta. Your premier has been on holidays. How is your government making you feel right now?

We're in an unprecedented health-care crisis right now. We need our leaderships to be stepping up and telling the people of Alberta what they need to do to stay safe. Not: This is optional, we're going to loosen all of these restrictions by this time, we're going to go back to near-normal school.

I really don't know how to respond when I hear this kind of tone coming in the fourth wave. 

When you're in the emergency department taking care of people, and you see all the people in the waiting room ... there is staff shortages, there's increased patient volumes ... elective surgeries are being cancelled because there's no appropriate hospitals for post-operative care, you think this isn't normal. 

This is not normal. And for our health-care leaders to try to act like it is normal and we're going back to business as usual seems like they're gaslighting us.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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