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Health-care pressures must be observed as restrictions lifted: doctors


Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert, said she believes the plan that was announced and began on Tuesday was put into place prematurely

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Several health-care workers are urging the province to proceed with caution and monitor health-care capacity in the move to lift public health restrictions.

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Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert, said the plan that was announced and began on Tuesday was put into place prematurely, noting hospital capacity across Alberta remains high and health-care workers have been working at an unsustainable pace for the past two years.

“The system is definitely stressed with both people who have incidental COVID-19, COVID contributing to their illness and severe COVID, and that doesn’t seem to be really getting measurably better,” said Saxinger. “So, of course, the idea of reducing public health measures right now seems premature to me.”

She said that even if community transmission drops in the coming weeks, the transmissibility of Omicron will allow it to infect the most vulnerable, especially unvaccinated individuals, and that could continue to put pressure on the health-care system.

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Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday his government would remove the Restrictions Exemption Program as of Wednesday as part of Phase 1 of a three-phase approach to removing all public health measures. Phase 1 also reduced capacity limits on venues with a capacity of fewer than 500 people. Phase 2, targeted for March 1, will further ease restrictions around schools and youth sports, and remove the provincial mask mandate as well as the work-from-home order. Phase 3 will remove all remaining public health measures and isolation requirements will be moved to a recommendation.

The plan was met with criticism from a variety of groups, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, school boards and student groups.

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Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, an ICU doctor in Edmonton, said that while he believes the plan is starting about a month early, Alberta is not alone in moving forward and he is not strongly opposed to it. He said the REP was no longer working as intended with waning protection against the COVID-19 Omicron variant, and he believes it was too late to amend the program for stronger requirements.

“I think at some point they had to lift it. I’d say Alberta’s probably fairly early on in Canada in doing that, but I don’t think I’m necessarily strongly opposed,” said Chowdhury. “As long as they are closely watching hospitalization, at some point the decision had to be made.”

Chowdhury said as the province reopens, the government should continue to promote public health measures that could limit the number of people needing medical attention and continue to encourage Albertans to get booster shots.

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Both Kenney and Health Minister Jason Copping said the plan is dependent on pressures in the health-care system easing and could be paused as needed.

Several other jurisdictions around the world have announced similar plans.

Dr. Eddy Lang, head of the emergency medicine department at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, said he was optimistic that the province will be able to safely remove restrictions while monitoring available data. He said hindsight will tell if the plan came into effect too early.

“We knew it was coming and we also know looking at other jurisdictions around the world that this is an appropriate time to consider loosening restrictions,” said Lang.

Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Kenney had said the province would wait until pressures on the health-care system dropped. However, when asked about the timing of his plan, he pointed to leading indicators such as a declining number of active cases in the community as well as the waning number of people being admitted to hospital each day, rather than the overall number of people being treated.

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NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Wednesday that she did not believe Kenney’s rationale for beginning the plan. She said Alberta Health Services data show there continues to be a higher number of Albertans in hospital with COVID-19 than was projected a week ago.

“Albertans have a right to a government that will tell them the truth. We, unfortunately, have learned we cannot trust the UCP,” said Notley.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks to reporters on Scotsman Hill following Premier Jason Kenney’s Tuesday afternoon announcement to lift some COVID-19 restrictions. Wednesday, February 9, 2022.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks to reporters on Scotsman Hill following Premier Jason Kenney’s Tuesday afternoon announcement to lift some COVID-19 restrictions. Wednesday, February 9, 2022. Photo by Brendan Miller/Postmedia

On Wednesday, 1,615 people were receiving care for COVID-19 in Alberta hospitals, including 135 in the ICU. Data from an AHS projection dashboard on Feb. 1 originally leaked Tuesday projected the number of patients on Feb. 9 could be as high as 1,400 and as low as 1,160. The projections showed hospitalizations are expected to drop throughout the rest of February and could be as low as 1,206 under a “high” scenario.

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Hospitalizations have not dropped that low since late January. If the AHS high projections came to fruition there would continue to be more people receiving treatment than at any time during the first four waves.

On Tuesday, Kenney said about 40 per cent of patients in hospital with COVID-19 are there for other medical issues and have tested positive for COVID-19.

The province’s ICU capacity is currently at 81 per cent. Without surge beds, capacity would be at 116 per cent.

Steve Buick, Copping’s press secretary, said data support the notion that Alberta is beyond the peak of the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave and that the number of non-ICU patients should soon begin to drop.

“The purpose of restrictions from the start of the pandemic has been to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. It’s now clear that we have prevented that from happening in the current wave and it’s time to ease restrictions,” said Buick.

Alberta reported 1,684 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the number of lab-confirmed active cases to 26,896. There were 10 additional deaths reported Wednesday. The provincial death toll is 3,696.

— With files from Lisa Johnson and Brittany Gervais

dshort@postmedia.com

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