Edmonton doctors group raises concern about Alberta’s coronavirus preparedness

Alberta health official addresses media after province announces its 1st presumptive case of COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, speaks to reporters about the province's first presumptive case of COVID-19.

Just hours before Alberta health officials announced the province is dealing with its first presumptive case of COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association tweeted its concerns about how the province is preparing for a potential pandemic.

“I’m trying not to use the word emergency —  it isn’t an emergency — it isn’t something that we should be panicking about,” Dr. Donald Wilson, president of community physicians for the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, told Global News on Thursday night.

“But we need to be concerned about it and we need to be a part of the plan to implement the ideas that this government wants to put forward… that Alberta Health Service wants to put forward.

READ MORE: Alberta has 1st presumptive case of coronavirus

“We’re responding to what we see as a lack of forward thinking with Alberta Health Services when it comes to possible pandemics. We have approached Alberta Health Services and they’ve not really been releasing a lot of information to us.

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“So our belief is that, in the event of a pandemic — the canary in the coal mine, so to speak — is community physicians and emergency departments.”

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Wilson said AHS communicates its plans to the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons which then relays those to doctors.

READ MORE: Alberta officials expand list of countries for coronavirus testing protocols

However, he said doctors have only received recent updates once in mid-February and once at the end of last month. He said he believes the spread of coronavirus is so rapid and dynamic that more communication is needed.

“It’s changing all the time,” he said. “Part of the problem for us goes beyond just getting the information so that we know what to do and how to do it.

“We don’t know what the big, large plans are if this really goes sideways. And we’ve been asking those questions. We don’t know — are we going to tents? What are we doing with practices? What are we doing with emergency departments? And we’re not part of that discussion.

“We know the discussions are going on at a high level, but the CDC in the United States in January and as late as the end of February, stated clearly that you need to engage community physicians in this process. They need to be part of the plan. We’re not part of that plan.”

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Speaking at a news conference on Thursday afternoon about the province’s first presumptive case of COVID-19, Alberta’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said the EZMSA tweet “is a really great opportunity to ensure all the work we’ve been doing with multiple partners is reaching everyone it needs to.”

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“So certainly we’re taking that very seriously. We have been working very closely with AHS, AMA, CPSA and primary health-care networks to ensure that we’re collaborating in this response, that we are getting information out.”

READ MORE: Amid COVID-19 concerns, Alberta health officials recommend preventative measures

Hinshaw added that while she was “concerned to see that message,” she said AHS has posted an FAQ on its website but that “we need to ramp up our efforts and we will continue to do so working closely with partners.”

Alberta health official takes reporters’ questions after province announces its 1st presumptive case of COVID-19
Alberta health official takes reporters’ questions after province announces its 1st presumptive case of COVID-19

Wilson also raised concerns about what he suggested are mixed messages that doctors are getting from the UCP government.

“How do I protect my staff? Well, we’re told buy face shields and by masks,” he said. “But we can’t get a lot of this stuff… worldwide, there’s a shortage, let alone in Alberta.

“Then the government came out and stated, well, ‘we should be buying it.’ The same government that has taken away a lot of my fee-for-service billings.

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“So not only am I — a small business —trying to run a business and to bill appropriately, but now I’m being told, ‘It’s your problem.’ So if I could get the equipment, I’d have to purchase it.”

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Wilson said he bought masks for his clinic a long time ago so he is not worried at his own practice, but he is concerned other clinics are not prepared.

Global News reached out to Health Minister Tyler Shandro for comment. In an email, an Alberta Health spokesperson said the supplies necessary to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 are the same as a physician’s office would require to prevent the spread of other respiratory pathogens (such as influenza) in their offices.

“We are working with AHS to implement the appropriate process for ensuring that PPE is shared with those who need it, while also ensuring that Alberta’s supplies are used as effectively as possible,” Alberta Health communications assistant director Tom McMillan said.

“AHS has already reached out to these physicians and we will continue working with them and all doctors and other health professionals to ensure that information and materials are being shared effectively.”

McMillan said Alberta Health department staff are meeting weekly with the CPSA, AHS and others, who are disseminating relevant communications to physicians.

Alberta Health said to date, more than 25 communications and other information materials have been provided to doctors by AHS, and five province-wide bulletins to physicians from the CPSA. McMillan said that included an FAQ for primary care providers shared on Thursday.

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When asked about it Friday morning, Premier Jason Kenney reiterated that Alberta is prepared.

“Obviously we take this very seriously and Dr. Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, has ensured us that Alberta is well prepared. The government and Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency have all been preparing for this since COVID-19 first appeared in China back in January,” he said.

“I understand AHS has increased its communication directly with frontline positions about measures that should be taken.

“We are concerned about this initial presumptive case. I think it was — given the breadth of this virus around the world — likely inevitable that we would see some manifestation of it here in Alberta. But again, we are assured by our world-leading public health officials and emergency response officials that Alberta is well prepared for this.”

Wilson said doctors still feel in the dark.

“The issue here is, how do we best serve the public? How do we best serve our patients? … [AHS and the government] really haven’t included us in what the plans are,” Wilson said.

“So now that we have a case of COVID-19 suspected… and I’ve been saying for over a week, it’s here, we just haven’t found it yet. The question is… what do we do now? … What do we do tomorrow?

“Because I guarantee tomorrow we’re going to be getting phone calls. People are going to be worried and scared.”

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