The Misericordia Community Hospital is shown in Edmonton, Wednesday, July 8, 2020. The head of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association says major components of triage have already begun in Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

‘People will suffer and will die’: Alberta doctor says health triage has begun

Alberta Health says any patient who requires mechanical ventilation is currently able to receive it

The head of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association, Dr. Paul Parks, says major components of triage have already begun in Alberta — an assertion disputed by the province.

The dispute comes as the Canadian Armed Forces prepares to bring in air transport and staff to deal with a COVID-19 crisis overwhelming Alberta’s hospitals.

Parks said that in recent days some critically ill COVID-19 patients who should have been on ventilators were not getting them. That’s on top of previously announced mass cancellations of surgeries, along with patient transfers, as doctors balance medical need with available space, he said.

Parks said it has become routine in hospitals in the last two weeks to have some critically ill patients — most of them unvaccinated COVID-19 cases — kept on main wards rather than in intensive care units on ventilators because they don’t have the resources.

“We already are in positions in many hospitals across Alberta where the doctors know that it would be best for this patient to be in ICU and be on a ventilator, but we’re not providing that option until they absolutely deteriorate to the point of crashing,” Parks said Friday in an interview.

“We already are implementing some of these things that are drastic, and we wish we never would have.

“People will suffer and will die by this.”

Alberta Health Services responded in a statement, saying: “We acknowledge that we are operating at a reduced standard of care, however safety remains at the forefront of all decisions.

“Any patient who requires mechanical ventilation is currently able to receive it.”

Parks said it’s not at the point where doctors must make on-the-spot, life-and-death decisions. But he said that’s not far away and, when it comes, the second stage of triage will follow quickly, including making those same decisions about children.

Alberta Health Services said triage will only be invoked if all efforts to increase intensive care capacity are exhausted.

The are currently 368 intensive care spaces with 304 patients, most of whom are critically ill with COVID-19, and most of them unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Alberta normally has 173 intensive care spaces, but has been converting other spaces, including operating rooms, into ad hoc critical care wards to meet the COVID-19 demand.

Alberta has more than 20,000 active COVID-19 cases, and is seeing well over 1,000 new cases a day.

Dr. Verna Yiu, head of Alberta Health Services, said Thursday that one key reason intensive care wards have not been overwhelmed is because enough COVID-19 patients are dying to free up bed space.

The number of COVID-19 deaths has been on the rise.

There were 29 fatalities reported Tuesday, 20 more Wednesday — including the first person under age 20 — and 17 on Thursday. More than 2,600 people have died in Alberta since the pandemic began.

Premier Jason Kenney has asked other provinces and the federal government for emergency aid.

Andrew McKelvey, a spokesman with the Department of National Defence, said in a statement Friday that they have been asked to provide up to eight intensive care nurses, along with air transport for patients to other health facilities in Canada.

The air transport should be ready to go in 24 hours and the nurses within 72 hours, said McKelvey.

Parks and other physicians, meanwhile, are urging Kenney to put in a “firebreak” to reverse the slew of new COVID-19 cases, starting with shutting down schools and banning mass gatherings, such as sports events.

—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Feds to provide Red Cross, Armed Forces help as COVID-19 swamps Alberta’s hospitals