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Alberta ‘not in a position’ to send health-care workers to Ontario amid COVID-19 case surge

Nurses putting on personal protective equipment (PPE) before treating COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary on November 14, 2020. Leah Hennel, Government of Alberta

The Alberta government said it is simply not in a position to send its health-care workers outside of the province after a plea from Ontario for help amid spiking COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a letter to all provinces and territories, Ontario’s deputy minister of health Helen Angus said the province is short thousands of nurses and asked whether her counterparts have any resources to spare. The letter asks for another 620 health professionals, including nurses and respiratory therapists.

The plea from Ontario comes as that province hit a single-day record for COVID-19 cases Friday with 4,812 new infections reported.

Read more: Ontario government asks other provinces, territories to send nurses as COVID-19 cases surge

The press secretary for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Friday that Alberta received a request from Ontario for health-care workers. However, Alberta is currently not in a place to help.

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“With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on a sharp rise here in Alberta, we are simply not in a position to send our health-care workers outside the province at this time,” Jerrica Goodwin said in a statement.

“Our priority must be and will be the health and safety of Albertans, and that means making sure our hospitals are adequately staffed to treat COVID-19 patients.”

Dr. Peter Brindley is a critical care physician at the University of Alberta Hospital. He said while it’s disappointing he can’t jump on a plane to help his colleagues in Ontario, he understands the decision.

“Ontarians are our friends, our colleagues, our family members, our fellow Canadians and I mean, we love these people. And we as health-care workers love helping out people. I would love to jump on a plane and go help them out,” he said.

“We certainly seem to need all our staff right now and so as unfortunate as that decision is, it’s probably prudent and it’s probably appropriate.”

Read more: Hinshaw letter gives hints on when Alberta entertainment venues may reopen from COVID-19

Alberta currently has 416 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 86 people in intensive care. Alberta Health Services said Wednesday it has added 10 additional ICU beds in the Edmonton zone, for a total of 82 general adult ICU beds.

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Brindley said all signs suggest ICUs in Alberta will see a big upturn in patients.

“It’s concerning. From our point of view, it’s nerve-wracking times. We’re managing at the moment, we’re at capacity with about a quarter of patients being COVID positive. But all the signs out of Ontario, all the signs out of British Columbia suggest it’s just going to go up and up.”

Brindley reiterated what many health officials have said in recent weeks, that Alberta is currently in a race between vaccines and variant cases of COVID-19. As of Thursday, variants made up 53.5 per cent of all active cases in Alberta.

“We need to stay ahead of this. The problem with COVID is once the numbers reach you it’s almost like toothpaste out of a tube — there’s no way to put it back in. So staying ahead of the problem is essential,” he said.

“Alberta has to brace for the worst and hope for the best.”

Heather Smith, president of United Nurses of Alberta, said they experienced deficits in their workforce before the pandemic, which have only been exacerbated over the past year.

“Every time a health-care worker is absent from the workplace because of an exposure, it has significant ripple effects on care and their colleagues.”

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She said Alberta has been about two weeks behind Ontario in terms of the COVID situation during this third wave. Smith hopes people will take public health measures seriously.

“Everyone is waiting nervously to see what number gets released today at 3:30 p.m. and as well as over the weekend, the following days because there’s grave concern that we’re going to face the same crisis and pressure on in-patients beds and ICU beds that Ontario is dealing with now.”

Earlier this week, the province’s chief medical officer of health warned of surging hospitalization numbers.

“Hospitalizations are increasing province-wide and cases continue to rise sharply,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday.

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In her statement Friday, Goodwin said Alberta has always been willing to help its fellow Canadians in times of crisis, pointing to a situation earlier in the pandemic when Alberta shipped surplus personal protective equipment to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

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“Our hearts go out to the people of Ontario as they fight this third wave and we will continue to have discussions with the Ontario government on how Alberta might support them going forward,” Goodwin said.

Read more: Hinshaw warns rising COVID-19 hospitalizations could lead to more restrictions ‘soon’

Alberta’s COVID-19 case count also continues to rise. On Thursday, the province reported 1,646 new cases of COVID-19.

As of Thursday, there were 16,223 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta.

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