A surge in coronavirus cases has pushed the healthcare system in the Canadian province of Alberta to the verge of collapse, as healthcare workers struggle against mounting exhaustion and a growing anti-vaccine movement in the region.
The province warned this week that its ICU capacity was strained, with more people requiring intensive care than any other point during the pandemic – nearly all of them unvaccinated.
“It’s not easy to go to work every day and watch people in their 30s die,” an ICU nurse in Edmonton told the Guardian. “Having to help a family say goodbye and then going through the actions that are required at the end of someone’s life, is worse than anyone can imagine.”
Alberta has long boasted of its loose coronavirus restrictions – including advertising the previous months as the “best summer ever” as it rolled back those few restrictions. It has also been the site of North America’s highest caseloads.
In a province with a long history of skepticism towards government, the pandemic has become fertile ground for protests and anti-vaccine rhetoric, including from elected officials, firefighters and police officers. During the ongoing federal election, the People’s Party of Canada, a fringe rightwing party that has come out against public health measures has seen its largest support base in rural Alberta.
That skepticism towards masks and vaccines has come at a steep cost, say frontline workers.
On Monday, more than 60 infectious-disease doctors wrote a letter to the premier, Jason Kenney, warning of a catastrophic outcome if the province did not address the escalating caseload.
“Our healthcare system is truly on the precipice of collapse,” the physicians wrote. “Hospitals and ICUs across the province are under enormous strain and have reached a point where it is unclear if, or for how much longer, we can provide safe care for Albertans.”
The province has cancelled elective surgeries as resources and space are allocated to Covid patients. ICU beds, meanwhile, are at capacity.
“As soon as those breathing tubes come out, we’re kicking people out of ICU to make space for someone else,” said another nurse. “It’s getting bleak. It’s hard to watch.”
Medical staff in Edmonton, the provincial capital, warned they would soon have to triage incoming patients to determine who could receive lifesaving care.
Kenney, who hasn’t made any public appearances in weeks, held emergency meetings with senior government officials on Tuesday. The province announced a proof-of-vaccine card, with plans to release a QR code in the coming weeks.
Nearly 79% of eligible Albertans over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 71% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated – one of the lowest rates in the country. An average of 78% of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated.
While these rates dwarf those in the United States, the relentless spread of the Delta variant highlights how catastrophic outbreaks can occur if even a tiny fraction of the population resist public health measures.
According to the province’s chief medical officer of health, roughly 90% of people in the ICUs are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated.
“No one can ever understand what it’s like to have a Zoom call with a family member whose patient is dying. No one will ever understand that,” said a third nurse. “That is the most awful thing I’ve ever done. And I think we’re all shifting a bit from this very intense sadness to this anger – because this really does feel preventable.”
Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor in Calgary and vocal critic of the government, called the latest surge the “intentionally cruel” wave.
“This was always part of the plan – letting younger, low-risk people get infected to build herd immunity. I just think they didn’t realize how much illness would result from it.”
He says mounting pressure from a voter base skeptical of public health restrictions led officials to declare Alberta “open for summer” on 1 July and removed many of the mitigation measures they had in place. The government also said it would no longer require people testing positive for Covid-19 to isolate – a plan it quickly scrapped.
“The vast majority of Albertans are good citizens that believe in collective action, that believe in governments. Unfortunately, the political base of the ruling party cannot be described like that,” he said.
One nurse pointed to the bitter irony that those most skeptical of public health measures are those most affected by the current wave.
“All these decisions from the government are clearly to satisfy their voter base,” she said. “But what a lack of insight to see that it’s their base that’s dying and causing us to resort to battlefield medicine.”
In recent weeks, a number of anti-vaccine protests have been held across the country, including out front of hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton, compounding the exhaustion and frustration of frontline healthcare workers.
“I don’t have the energy to make sense of it any more,” said the nurse. “I’m barely functioning as it is, because we’re pouring from the cup that has a hole. We never get to fill it.”
Instead, nurses say they are left pleading with a narrow minority of the public that increasingly is ending up in the hospital.
“We’re just asking for them to trust us one more time – we need them to so our entire healthcare system doesn’t collapse,” she said. “And I worry – because I don’t know how to reach those people.”