Alta. docs concerned 'inconsequential' restrictions won't stem rising COVID-19 numbers

An ICU health-care worker shown inside a negative pressure room cares for a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Some health experts in Alberta are worried the measures introduced Tuesday won’t be enough to stem the growth of COVID-19 in the province as more contagious variants spread.

By reverting to Step 1 of its reopening plan, the province will again see indoor dining closed and retail store capacity limited to 15 per cent as of Tuesday at midnight.

One ICU physician called the action by the Alberta government “inconsequential” and “negligent.”

"We had a chance to save summer just like we had a chance to save Christmas," Dr. Darren Markland told CTV News Edmonton. "We haven't done either and we continue to make the same decisions knowing that the bad outcomes are guaranteed if we don't change our pattern of behaviour." 

In Alberta’s COVID-19 update Tuesday, the premier revealed modelling suggesting Alberta could have an average of 2,000 daily cases by the end of the month.

Premier Jason Kenney said that the government has been working with Alberta Health to increase capacity in hospitals in preparation for an increase in hospitalizations.

“We believe that we could accommodate upward of 2,300 or 2,400 COVID patients," the premier noted, but at the "terrible cost" of cancelling non-urgent surgeries and other medical procedures. 

“We believe that if we don’t slow down this curve, we are set to hit the maximum capacity of our system in mid-May,” Kenney warned. 

Dr. Noel Gibney at the University of Alberta is glad the government introduced new restrictions, but is worried like Markland they won’t be enough.

“While we did have time with the original version of the virus to do something, see what the effect is… these variants are spreading so rapidly,” said Gibney, also a member of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association's pandemic committee. 

“It’s going to move so fast that unless the government is willing to keep up with it and do things in advance, I think we could find ourselves in a very difficult situation.”

Gibney pointed to modelling shown by Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Jan. 25 showing the potential for 8,000 to 10,000 cases daily if case numbers weren’t brought under control.

“If we look at the old version of COVID, it doubled every two weeks and we saw the trouble we got into,” said Gibney.

“It’s doubling every week now so we’re not at approximately 1,000, end of next week it will be 2,000… by the end of April we’d find ourselves at about 8,000.”

VACCINATION NOT HAPPENING FAST ENOUGH: DOC 

Markland is also concerned that without a faster vaccination rollout, patients will be younger and hospitals will be more strained. 

“Our elderly patients, when they got really bad COVID we couldn’t support them, but that won’t be the case (with young patients)," Markland said. "These people will fight for as long as we support them, which means their death will have to be a conscious decision based on how damaged they are and whether or not they’ll survive out of the hospital.”

And the toll, he said, on health-care workers who are already exhausted and may be suffering PTSD from the previous waves will be greater than before. 

“These are sacrifices that don’t need to be made. We shut things down for three weeks, let our vaccinations get ahead of this curve and we can fix this.”

Both physicians believe places of worship, restaurants and personal service businesses like salons should close, and students should learn from home until the third wave is under control. 

Kenney said Tuesday his government's vaccination schedule has fallen behind targets slightly; now, he expects half of Alberta adults will have been offered the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by June, and the majority of adult residents by mid-September. 

On Tuesday, Alberta reported 931 cases -- including 676 variant infections -- and three deaths, bringing the province's COVID-19 death toll to 2,001. In a recent surge of cases, the province has counted more than 800 new infections every day since March 31. Since the start of April, the province's active case count has grown by more than 1,700. Meanwhile, its test positivity has exceeded eight per cent each of the last five days, including 10.2 per cent on Tuesday.

Variants of concern now represent 42.6 per cent of the 10,809 active cases, up from 27 per cent last Monday.

According to Alberta's top doctor, it is unknown whether the P.1 variant causes more severe outcomes, but that it is more infectious like the B.1.1.7 strain. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said variants could become the dominant source of infections by the end of the week. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Diego Romero