When an elderly couple with Covid-19 were admitted to their hospital’s intensive care unit, Laura Marie and her team ensured they were placed in the same room.
“They were so nice,” said the nurse, who works in the Canadian province of Alberta. “But they were so scared.
The Edmonton nurses took care of the couple as best they could, but their condition worsened and they were quickly put on ventilation.
“They were so connected. Their vital signs were the same. They had the same heart rate, ”she says.
Within days, the husband succumbed to the virus. His wife was briefly awakened from her medical coma so she could hold his hand when he died.
Working on the front lines of Canada’s response to the pandemic, Marie is desperately aware of the consequences of resisting public health measures. But as cases in her community increase, she has been frustrated to see growing fatigue from the pandemic, even as the death rate soars.
“I’m afraid people are getting further and further away from these stories,” she said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen until they have to say goodbye to their mother or father.”
Infections are on the rise in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and exhausted healthcare workers say they are quickly approaching breaking point.
But many residents of the Canadian Prairies – a vast and agriculturally rich region of the country – present themselves as a people who prioritize individualism and personal responsibility over collective action and government intervention.
In recent months, that idea has come up against the bitter reality of the coronavirus pandemic.
When the first wave of the coronavirus hit Canada, it hit heavily populated Ontario and Quebec hardest. Most cases – and more than 80% of deaths – were concentrated in these two provinces.
Now Saskatchewan and Manitoba have some of the highest infection rates in the country. And with 13,349 active cases, Alberta overtook much more populous provinces to become the center of the second wave.
“It is clear that we have reached a rocky point in Alberta. The virus is spreading faster and more widely than at any time during the pandemic, ”Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer, told reporters.
For some jurisdictions, spring has turned out to be a valuable lesson in the effectiveness of lockdowns and the need for strong public health measures.
In contrast, Prairie officials have taken a more relaxed approach in the summer and fall, slashing previous restrictions and bragging to residents that the economy could successfully reopen. Such attitudes have persisted even after more than 1,500 cases were recorded at an Alberta meat-packing plant during the country’s worst outbreak.
The surge in new infections has exposed the failures of this strategy and prompted accusations that officials have wasted valuable planning opportunities.
“We had a lot of time to prepare for the second wave,” said Marie, whose name has been changed. (As a nurse in Alberta, she is an employee of the provincial health department and is not authorized to speak publicly.) “I just didn’t think this attack would be as serious as it was serious right now.
In some hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary, intensive care units are 90% capacity and cases continue to rise. The province has abandoned efforts to find contracts, and testing capacity is nearing its limits.
Matthew Douma, an emergency nurse and medical researcher in Edmonton, fears understaffing and human exhaustion are putting additional strain on a strained system.
“A significant proportion of our staff are on leave because their children are symptomatic or are themselves symptomatic and isolating. Before Covid-19, we already had a shortage of nurses. Now many of our departments are at full capacity, ”he said, adding that his views did not reflect the province’s health service.
Alberta’s ability to respond to the pandemic has also been hampered by cuts to social services and health care by the province’s Conservative government, which has faced a severe economic recession in recent years.
The outbreak in the Prairies mirrors a similar trend in rural U.S. states like Wyoming and South Dakota, where the virus has overcrowded health systems.
For months, the Government of Alberta has touted “personal responsibility” as a key tool in its fight against the virus.
“I think there is a bit of a rebellious and independent spirit among the people who live here in the western provinces and we have a conservative government to kind of reinforce that ideology,” Douma said.
On Tuesday evening, amid mounting pressure from public health experts, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced a new set of restrictions, banning indoor social gatherings and partially closing schools. But restaurants, bars and places of worship will remain open.
While the Prairies have similar demographics to their southern South American counterparts, key differences – including a publicly funded health care system and the region’s leaders’ unwillingness to embrace conspiracy theories of the viruses – probably avoided a much more disastrous outcome.
“We have certainly been more aggressive than the United States – especially with the masks,” said Dr Anand Kumar, infectious disease specialist and Winnipeg-based intensive care unit physician. “There are places in the United States where they just haven’t done anything and those places are getting appalling numbers.”
His province of Manitoba has the highest rate of active cases in the country: 634 infections per 100,000 population – seven times more than neighboring Ontario. In the capital, Winnipeg, testing centers are recording positivity rates of 13%. In Steinbach, the site of a recent anti-mask protest, officials recorded 10-day positivity rates of 40%.
Even with new restrictions in place, Kumar doesn’t think they go far enough to avoid overloading the healthcare system.
“The higher the stress on the system, the less you can permanently maintain it. Right now, everyone is worried – not about what level we are at right now, but what is to come. ”
Marie also warns that the effects will be long lasting. Before the pandemic, she says, nurses in ICUs rarely had the chance to form personal relationships with patients suffering from trauma or overdoses.
“Your heart still breaks for their loss, but you did not know them. But with these Covid patients, we talk to them, we try to reassure them. And we try to let them know that we are doing all we can, ”she said. “But these are just words. We don’t have the tools to save people. We can offer support, but we cannot cure them.