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Protesters gather at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary on Sept. 13. Premier Jason Kenney made his last attempt at controlling the COVID-19 spread on Sept. 3, when he announced a provincewide mask mandate, a curfew on liquor sales and a $100 incentive to get the vaccine.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s intensive-care units are nursing a record number of patients ill with the coronavirus, and physicians are warning the province’s health system could fail within four weeks.

There were 209 patients with COVID-19 in Alberta’s ICUs as of Monday afternoon, according to Alberta Health Services’ internal data, obtained by The Globe and Mail. The province is cancelling surgeries and procedures to free up the equipment, space and health professionals needed to care for this surge of patients, most of whom are not immunized against the virus. Saskatchewan is taking similar measures.

Physicians on Monday said they are on the verge of triaging care because Alberta’s health system is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Infectious-disease physicians, in a letter to Premier Jason Kenney, calculate the number of people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s ICUs will double every two weeks at the current rate. Mr. Kenney made his last attempt at controlling the spread on Sept. 3, when he announced a provincewide mask mandate, a curfew on liquor sales and a $100 incentive to get the shot.

“Our health care system is truly on the precipice of collapse,” the 65 infectious-disease physicians wrote in their letter. Normally, Alberta maintains 173 ICU beds.

Doctors are begging Mr. Kenney to immediately introduce vaccine passports for non-essential services, in order to break the virus’ chain of transmission and avoid restrictions imposed in the first three waves of the pandemic. Alberta’s vaccination rate lags those in the rest of Canada, save for Saskatchewan, and the provincial government prides itself on the lack of restrictions.

“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 letter said.

The Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association, or EZMSA, in a separate letter, said Alberta will be “on the threshold of a health system failure” within four weeks.

“We are very close to requiring triage to determine who gets life-saving treatment and who does not,” the letter said.

Alberta reported 18 deaths related to COVID-19 in the 24 hours preceding Monday afternoon. The province counted 819 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including ICUs, on Monday, according to AHS’ internal data. People who are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated make up about 74 per cent of COVID-19 hospital admissions, excluding ICU. Of COVID-19 patients in the ICU, roughly 90 per cent are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated, according the Chief Medical Officer of Health.

At the height of the third wave, on May 18, Alberta had 182 COVID-19 patients in the ICU. AHS’ early warning system predicts 254 people with COVID-19 will be in ICU by Sept. 20 and 310 by Sept. 27, in the high scenario. Actual admissions to ICUs have recently exceeded the early warning system’s high scenario.

There could be 993 people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s hospital wards and ICUs by Sept. 20, according to AHS’ high scenario. This will climb to 1,221 COVID-19 admissions by Sept. 27, according to data generated Monday.

Roughly 79 per cent of Albertans over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 71 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. Mr. Kenney’s $100 incentive has done little to boost enthusiasm for the shot.

Alberta is no longer contact tracing outside of high-risk settings and stopped informing schools of positive cases in their classrooms. Mr. Kenney in July said Alberta would not “facilitate” vaccine passports and would “discourage businesses” from asking people whether they were immunized, which he believed would run counter to privacy laws. However, on Sept. 3, he said the province was developing a QR code so businesses opting for their own vaccine requirements could quickly access someone’s vaccination information. Alberta – unlike British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island – remains leery of a provincewide vaccine certificate system.

“The worst part of the failed government response is not that they cannot do anything but that they won’t,” the EZMSA letter said.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, was unavailable for an interview Monday. In a statement, she urged Albertans to get vaccinated and follow public-health measures, which are largely limited to wearing masks when using transit and indoors when in public.

“The COVID situation in our acute care sites has never been more serious,” the statement said. “Vaccines are one thing we know that can limit new cases and help to prevent severe outcomes, such as hospitalizations, not just in the medium term but also over the long term.”

She also urged residents to take protective steps not mandated by the government.

“We need to work together again in other ways to bring down COVID transmission in order to protect our health care system and our communities,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “This includes limiting in-person contacts wherever possible, postponing or avoiding in-person meetings and gatherings, staying home when we are even slightly unwell, and wearing masks in indoor public places.”

Health Minister Tyler Shandro declined an interview request. Last week, he said the province was waiting to see if the mask mandate and liquor curfew had any effect on infections.

Alberta added 4,740 new cases last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to data released Monday. On Sunday, there were 803 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 198 in ICU.

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