Hundreds of Alberta doctors, 3 major health-care unions join calls for ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown

A group of more than 430 Alberta physicians and three major health-care unions will send a letter to Premier Jason Kenney today endorsing the idea of a “circuit-breaker” lockdown as cases of COVID-19 continue to surge in the province.

“There is no more time. We have to act now,” said Dr. Tehseen Ladha, who co-authored the letter. “We need something strong and mandatory in order to bend the curve.”

The letter will arrive the same day Alberta’s government is expected to introduce further restrictions.

Though restrictions were not final as of Wednesday, officials said the measures were expected to be in line with the premier’s messaging over the past few weeks, involving modest and targeted measures — moves that officials emphasized do not constitute a lockdown.

Thursday’s letter also comes on the heels of a separate letter signed by more than 70 physicians earlier this week, which warned that the province’s acute-care system could be overburdened if strict restrictions weren’t implemented.

Doctors warn of health system crisis

In the letter, the signatories say they feel it is their duty to warn of the “impending health system crisis” resulting from the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta.

“We have reached a juncture where only strong and decisive mandatory measures can prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” the letter reads.

Front-line doctors have warned that Alberta hospitals are in danger of being pushed beyond capacity as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the province. (Vancouver Coastal Health)

Those measures, which the letter says should be time-limited, include:

  • Directives to work from home for those who are able.
  • The limiting of contacts to those within the household or a support bubble.
  • Restrictions on group recreation and sports activities.
  • The suspension of group indoor activities, including indoor dining, bars, casinos, religious services and theatres.

Schools should be kept open for in-person learning, the letter says, “due to their vital importance.”

The letter goes on to cite Alberta’s rise in cases, high levels of test positivity and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions. 

On Wednesday, Alberta reported there are 217 COVID-related patients in hospital — more than double the number a month ago — with a record-setting 46 of them in intensive care. 

“Even if transmissions drop today, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths will continue to rise for weeks as current infections progress,” the letter reads.

Circuit-breaker lockdown

In the view of the doctors, a circuit-breaker lockdown would consist of strict, time-limited measures that would help prevent a complete lockdown should the health system become overwhelmed.

“The time for incremental measures has passed, and voluntary measures, requested October 9, have not blunted the rise in cases,” the letter reads. “Our testing system is strained, and contact tracing [capabilities] have collapsed.

“We see no other way to break chains of transmission and decrease cases, than to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ of short, strict measures.”

WATCH | As cases surge, provinces are implementing short, sharp circuit-breaker lockdowns:

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across Canada, provinces are implementing the short, sharp “circuit-breaker” lockdowns to fight the spread of the virus and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. 1:58

Last week, Kenney asked Albertans to stop hosting parties and social gatherings in their homes but did not impose mandatory restrictions.

“We’re not going to be sending out police to monitor this,” Kenney said. “As much as what we’ve done, this is appealing to people to exercise personal and collective responsibility, so that we can avoid having to use more stringent measures.”

On Wednesday, officials told CBC News that new measures set to be announced on Thursday by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, could include capacity limits on worship services and fitness classes.

Businesses could also see reduced capacity or operating hours, but one official said no business closures are expected to be announced.

The letter released Thursday indicates it recognizes that suggested restrictions under a circuit-breaker lockdown would also present their own harms, and urges the government to provide support to impacted businesses.

“The evolving evidence suggests that strong, time-limited measures will not only minimize the second wave but could prevent the need for the complete lockdowns that become inevitable when the health system becomes overwhelmed,” the letter reads.

“A failure to control COVID-19 spread means we cannot expect our economy to recover quickly or strongly.”

WATCH | Infectious disease specialist’s growing concern over Alberta hospitalizations: 

Dr. Jim Kellner, an infectious disease specialist in Alberta, is concerned about rising COVID-19 case numbers and their impact on hospitals two to three weeks from now. 0:29

3 health-care unions endorse letter

Ladha said the letter had also been endorsed by the United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which together represent more than 100,000 health-care workers.

“We think it’s imperative that action is taken now,” said Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta. “We think it would be a responsible thing, for the premier to show leadership.”

Ladha said part of the purpose of the letter is to get the word out to the public.

“The majority of people that actually work in the health-care system that are seeing these numbers, that are seeing the strain that we’re under in the hospitals, know that this is an impending crisis,” she said. 

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says she thinks that it is ‘imperative’ that action be taken now as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Alberta. (CBC)

At Monday’s press conference, Hinshaw said the idea of a circuit-breaker lockdown was an interesting one, adding the province would continue to consider all its options.

“We need to look at all options on the table … including what we’re doing now, which is giving Albertans every opportunity to walk along with us, to come alongside and be a part of the solution before we impose restrictions,” she said.

Alberta reported 672 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and seven more deaths to COVID-19 — the third day in a row the province reported seven new deaths in one day.