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With pandemic rampaging in Alberta, Calgary hospitals face oxygen rationing

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Calgary's Rockyview General Hospital, one of the sites where doctors are being asked to ration oxygen. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a development that is surely emblematic of the unchecked progress of the novel coronavirus under the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney, Albertans learned yesterday we are now having to ration oxygen in Calgary.


Just to be perfectly clear, this means that Alberta Health Services is rationing the use of medical oxygen supplies in three major Calgary hospitals -- Foothills Medical Centre, Peter Lougheed Centre and Rockyview General Hospital.

This qualifier is important so there is no need for UCP issues managers and cabinet ministers to start screeching that the NDP is to blame for the fact only 21 per cent of the earth's atmosphere is made up of oxygen.

Just the same, with a pandemic respiratory disease, an awful lot of people are going to require assistance getting enough oxygen to survive, and that was the problem highlighted by the appearance yesterday of a memorandum to Calgary physicians and other medical professionals from two senior AHS managers.

The memo, from executive director and respiratory therapy programmatic co-lead Carmella Steinke and Calgary zone respiratory therapy medical advisor Dr. Jonathan Gaudet, asked the city's docs, nurses and respiratory therapists to stop using so much oxygen to treat patients immediately.

The reason given was "limitations of the bulk oxygen systems at some adult acute care sites in Calgary and," this part is important, "the expected increase in demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

That expected influx of Albertans gravely ill with COVID-19, in turn, is driven by the large number of new cases Alberta is experiencing now -- a record 1,733 in the previous 24 hours, on a par with the daily new cases in Ontario, which has more than triple the population.

The rate at which coronavirus infections are rising, in turn, is easy to connect to the Kenney government's apparent determination to keep bars, restaurants and casinos open in the name of the economy, and to tolerate large public super-spreader events by loony libertarian anti-maskers in its one base in the name of "freedom."

Another impact of the same phenomenon is the appearance of "double bunking" in Alberta's hard-pressed intensive care units and widespread concerns the province will soon run out of trained professionals to staff available ICU beds.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, naturally, denied there is an oxygen shortage. He said the memo, the reality of which could hardly be denied, meant something else. He told the Legislature it was only talking about "a contingency plan of AHS, as they do throughout the year."

Not so fast, minister, judging from what front-line physicians in Calgary had to say. "I've worked in anesthesia here for over 30 years and was unaware that we are 'often' concerned about oxygen supplies," tweeted Dr. Sue Reid.

"I've never had this happen in all my years of practice," tweeted Dr. Miriam Berchuk, another anesthesiologist. Others made similar observations.

AHS's Edmonton zone medical director, Dr. David Zygun, told media the memo was "anticipatory" in nature. "We do have an adequate oxygen supply."

Nevertheless, the wording of the memo seems pretty unequivocal: "Clinical measures require everyone to engage in oxygen conservation measures immediately," it stated.

And the oxygen shortage won't be fixed, the memo added, until June 2021. So don't take a breather just yet.

Opposition leader Rachel Notley observed that the letter makes it clear the continued increase in COVID-19 cases is having a severe impact on the whole health-care system. "This is a consequence of the UCP's failure to prepare for a second wave."

NDP health critic David Shepherd similarly ascribed the oxygen crisis to "a lack of leadership, preparation & action from Jason Kenney & the UCP. It didn't have to be this way."

It sure looks as if the UCP had no real plan for the health-care system to respond to the clinical impact of its trust in whatever the fast-food lobby and the bar industry have to say, plus its willingness to mollify its own wild-eyed Wexity fringe.

The latter held a large rally in Calgary on Saturday, complete with a passel of Proud Boys, to decry COVID masks as an assault on liberty. The same people seem to have no problem with the UCP's plan to let insurance companies charge us higher rates if we won't knuckle under to letting them use our smart phones to monitor our driving behaviour. Go figure. But I digress.

Practising medicine in Alberta during a pandemic while Kenney's hand is on the tiller of the ship of state turns out to be about as much fun as sitting on the seabed in a leaking submarine while depth charges explode all around.

The UCP's blinkered effort to restore the "Alberta advantage" without paying attention to the realities of COVID-19 is sucking the oxygen right out of this province!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Wikimedia Commons​

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