Alberta Politics
Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital, one of the sites where doctors are being asked to ration oxygen (Photo: Alberta Health Services).

With pandemic respiratory disease rampaging virtually unchecked in Alberta, Calgary faces oxygen rationing

Posted on December 01, 2020, 1:44 am
7 mins

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. 

Oxygen!

No fines were handed out when unmasked anti-maskers packed together defiantly to protest in Calgary on Saturday (Photo: Facebook).

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.” 

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Photo: Government of Alberta).

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. 

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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. 

Practicing medicine in Alberta during a pandemic while Mr. 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!

25 Comments to: With pandemic respiratory disease rampaging virtually unchecked in Alberta, Calgary faces oxygen rationing

  1. David Harrigan

    December 1st, 2020

    A wise man said to me early today “I don’t know what the bar is for a Premier and a Minister of Health to resign in disgrace is, but ‘We are running out of oxygen’ has to be pretty darn close.”

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    December 1st, 2020

    I must thank you once again for a well written blog. I really don’t know what it will take for Albertans to wake up and realize the UCP are an abysmal government that isn’t fit to govern Alberta. They are putting their own ideology over what’s best for the province, and it’s not helping. We aren’t seeing any improvement on the Covid-19 front, with the province financially, or otherwise. The UCP are basically an utter failure. I really don’t know how the damage the UCP has done to Alberta can be fixed, once 2023 rolls around. No doubt about it, the UCP have to be gone. The UCP continue to make one major mistake after another. It just isn’t doing anyone any good.

    Reply
  3. tom in Ontario

    December 1st, 2020

    “Just to be perfectly clear, this means that Alberta Health Services is rationing the use of medical oxygen supplies in three major Calgary hospitals—”
    Easy UCP solution, less oxygen, more tax cuts!

    Reply
  4. Athabascan

    December 1st, 2020

    Oxygen supplies running low in Alberta hospitals! What’s next?

    God help us when vaccines are made available, because kenney is sure to screw that up too. Regular Albertans (i.e. non-NHL players, non-politicians, non-oil company CEOs, non-UCP cronies) will be lucky to have access.

    Things will get a lot worse with kenny at the helm. Put on your seat belts Albertans, because we are in for a rough ride – the worst in Canada.

    Reply
  5. Abs

    December 1st, 2020

    Well said! The thing about telling doctors, nurses and respiratory technologists to turn down the dial to the minimum required to sustain life, is that the optics are bad. Who would have thought! Who is dictating medical standards now, politicians and bureaucrats? Will malpractice insurance rates rise now, too?

    I guess it’s best to avoid the hospitals on that list if possible, in the event a person has an asthma attack requiring hospitalization. Best to seek out a hospital that has adequate oxygen, and where medical need is the top priority, you know, like in pre-pandemic times.

    As an apologist for the UCP might say, “This is fine.” As an outsider looking in might say, “I guess people aren’t dying quickly enough or in sufficient numbers, so let’s turn down the gas.” The latter is what things could come to, a 360° turn from another time in history involving the use of gas, that should also never be forgotten.

    Anyone with common sense might suggest it’s past time for a lockdown, if we have to double-bunk guests at our finest remand centres and hospitals, and can’t even guarantee enough air to breathe. No wonder my predecessors, who grew up during a past pandemic and lost family members to it, were terrified to go to the hospital, back when doing so often meant you never walked out again.

    This failure to plan ahead for something as obvious as oxygen, is likely the biggest mistake the UCP has made so far. Loved ones lost because government failed to take a pandemic seriously will not be forgotten. The UCP can call them people who have lived past their mandated expiry date, or reduce them to “comorbidities”, but their loved ones call them “mom”, “dad”,”auntie”, and “uncle”. Nowhere else in the civilized world are people treated like useless breathers. Alberta has the monopoly on disdain for human life. This is revolting.

    Reply
    • Mike in Edmonton

      December 1st, 2020

      It’s part and parcel of the Kenney Klowns’ “head-in-the-sand” (or somewhere) attitude. The fact oxygen demand is so high they’re having trouble keeping up simply points out hospitals are getting overfull. But hey–if you don’t look, maybe the big ugly thing will go away. So what if it takes Grandma with it? As long as it’s somebody else’s Grandma…. (For the literal, and the occasional UCP troll, that was sarcasm.)

      Reply
  6. Bob Raynard

    December 1st, 2020

    Maybe Jason should tell patients to do more with less.

    Reply
  7. Political Ranger

    December 1st, 2020

    “sitting on the seabed in a leaking submarine while depth charges explode all around” is not the only reference to WWII activities that resemble the effects of UCP policies.

    Hitler had dozens, dozens! of people managing his concentration camps to eliminate and exterminate unwanted populations in the most efficient manner possible.

    Reply
  8. Abs

    December 1st, 2020

    Oh, and did we mention that there isn’t enough room to pronate Covid patients in double- bunked ICUs? Another best practice out the window. Cut back on oxygen, don’t pronate? Thank you, penny-pinching, skinflint politicians and bureaucrats. Your willingness to let other people’s loved ones die is truly reprehensible. We will not forget.”Cohorting” is not a verb; “exterminating” is.

    https://www.macleans.ca/society/health/icus-in-alberta-are-drowning-say-doctors-ive-never-had-this-happen-in-all-my-years-of-practice/amp/

    Reply
  9. Bob Raynard

    December 1st, 2020

    I am wondering if any of the UCP MLAs are getting a little nervous about their leader. Not so much the rookies, perhaps, since they appear to have been hand picked by Jason based on their willingness to follow, but people like Ric McIver were in the legislature to watch an internal revolution turf Alison Redford over something a lot less serious than ideologically sending Albertans to their deaths.

    Reply
    • Tiddo

      December 1st, 2020

      Bob, I too have been waiting for a backbench revolt but I don’t see it happening any time soon. The adults in the room are already in cabinet and most of the B team are nobodies and sycophants. My MLA is Tanya Fir; I was hopeful she and a few others would step and start pressuring the brain trust into a more pragmatic mindset, but from what I can see she’s been completely sidelined, probably for stepping out of line.

      Reply
    • Mike in Edmonton

      December 1st, 2020

      McIver et al were rebelling against Redford wasting money, not lives. There’s the difference for RepubliCons.

      Reply
  10. AHS

    December 1st, 2020

    We have a favour to ask. Can you find out what happened to Keith Gerein? We think he may have been let go by Postmedia.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      December 1st, 2020

      “William Southam Fellow at @masseycollege for 20/21. On leave as columnist for the Edmonton Journal.” So says Twitter. DJC

      Reply
  11. Tiddo

    December 1st, 2020

    To be clear, the problem is not a lack of oxygen itself, but that the infrastructure that supplies the oxygen is old, out of date, and incapable of meeting the increased demand without failing. Note also that neither the new south hospital nor the children’s hospital in Calgary are on the list of hospitals under rationing because they are relatively new.

    I’m not trying to get the UCP off the hook for their many, many failures, but this is not one of them. Chalk this one up to the failure of successive governments to invest in our health system infrastructure.

    Reply
    • Abs

      December 2nd, 2020

      The end result of this problem is still the same: a shortage of oxygen at the hospitals mentioned. Knowing that this second wave was coming, what was done to move this work forward over the summer? What contingency plans were put in place to provide backup oxygen supplies, should need arise? Oh, right, nothing that we know of. Given the government’s desire to privatize health care, attacks on doctors during the pandemic, and intention to lay off 11,000 laundry and cleaning staff, it seems unlikely that this problem was a priority. Perhaps they thought the pandemic was going to blow over by fall, and were blindsided by their unwillingness to listen to science? Whatever. They own this. Failure to plan ahead is still failure.

      Reply
  12. Bret Larson

    December 1st, 2020

    When I read your headings I get flashbacks of comic book covers.

    The Covid modeling from March had an Extreme peak of 1.6 million infections and 32000 deaths by mid April. That is what unchecked means.

    Reply
    • Kang

      December 1st, 2020

      Bret: here I thought you might display a bit of illogical whimsy by pointing out to Tiddo that the oxygen shortage being caused by bad infrastructure is like the low prices for tar dissolved in solvent being caused by the lack of a pipeline to (insert name of magical place that will pay more for extra tar here).

      You picked a mathematical model that assumed people are too stupid to wear masks and be cautious. In fact, most people are wearing masks, even in deepest rural Alberta where I do business. So, the stupidly high infection numbers just show how infectious this virus is and how easily it spreads in the venues like bingo halls, casinos, bars, and churches the UCP thinks are essential. The rising number of people in ICUs shows how dangerous Covid-19 is.

      Reply
      • Bret Larson

        December 2nd, 2020

        The doesn’t have such logic. All such factors are included in the r0 number. It’s just clear from looking at the model that the new practices conveyed and utilized have been successful. Course finishing is the hardest part, but we know how to do the job.

        Reply
  13. Mike in Edmonton

    December 1st, 2020

    Would you think me cruel, if I point out that the RepubliCons are unlikely to accept Covid-19 is real and tragic–until the tragedy strikes their own loved ones? Kenney should take a lesson from The Donald. The Orange Orangutan didn’t take coronavirus seriously till a friend wound up in hospital in New York. Of course, he got over it and reverted to type.

    Kenney and Shandro have tried to downplay and dismiss the dangers since the first wave subsided in June. Politics took over, and here we are. Even Doug Ford and Brian Pallister haven’t been quite as purblind–not quite.

    I have to talk to my sister and my mom–to keep Mom safe (she’s 90), we’ll have to do her shopping FOR her, not WITH her. Might even get to the point where we drop stuff at her door and skedaddle–to avoid the risk of infecting her.

    I suspect the UCP MLAs won’t rebel until a few of them bury loved ones. The sight of Grandma gasping her last might shake loose the grip of UCP party discipline and even fear of The Leader. God forbid it should come to that–but with this bunch, it might be nothing less will get through to them.

    Reply
  14. Art

    December 1st, 2020

    I think these hospitals were built to have a small percentage of patients using oxygen and have it available in each room, but not a lot of rooms at the same time. AHS should have been aware of this possibility as it was a reported problem in other countries. Availability of medically approved oxygen supply components are probably hard to get right now. Perhaps the UCP is working on finding a non-union contractor that is competent at designing and installing upgrades to the oxygen systems and cannot find one. Perhaps they are tying to find a way to privative and monetize the O2 delivery; feed the meter if you want to live.

    Reply
  15. Dave

    December 1st, 2020

    Just a little oxygen shortage folks … nothing to worry about … happens all the time, er really. If you believe that, I have some northern Alberta swamp land to sell you at a terrific price.

    I can imagine how frantically the UCP is trying to spin this right now, pressuring AHS to downplay this, implying that oxygen is somehow being used wastefully and then saying it is not an immediate problem. Well, a train wreck is not an immediate problem before it happens either, but if you can see it coming, you really need to acknowledge what is happening and deal with it now, not live in denial.

    The real problem is not that oxygen is suddenly being wasted, it is the increasing number of people being hospitalized for Covid, needing it. This is something out of the ordinary. The bad news, is it is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Covid numbers in Alberta are still increasing at an alarming numbers and if the recent half measures announced by Kenney are having any effect in slowing this, it is not apparent yet. More people with Covid, means a certain percentage of that increase will require hospitalization and a certain percentage of them will require oxygen.

    Given we can’t easily get more oxygen in the short term, the only real solution is to reduce the spread and increase in Covid numbers. However, a lot of people have been saying that for the last few months and unfortunately the Kenny UCP government has still not really been getting the message about the urgency of this.

    Someone in the end will be accountable for this train wreck currently in motion and I don’t think most Albertans will buy the UCP spin that doctors are not allocating resources well. There will be a reckoning and I think it will be for Kenney and the UCP.

    Reply
  16. Just Me

    December 1st, 2020

    Shandro, being the genius he believes he is, retorted that there cannot be an oxygen shortage because “he breaths it everyday and he feels fine”.

    Calgary is Kenney and Shandro’s backyard and they covet its garden of votes. It must be hard being from Calgary these days. The voters there put their stock and hopes in that the Angry Midget was going to be the extraordinary genius he claimed to be. However, since election day, the UCP cannot stop falling over themselves into one disaster after another, all the while spending public money hand over first propping up the O & G industry at the expense of healthcare, education, and pretty much everything else that keeping Alberta from falling headlong into a Dystopian nightmare.

    Right now, I’m cheering on Covid in the hope that it completely destroys that dubious thing called Jason Kenney’s political career.

    Reply
  17. Mike in Edmonton

    December 1st, 2020

    Art and Dave, I think you both have made good points. My–thankfully limited–experience shows hospital rooms have oxygen supplies at each bed. Older hospitals may well rely on gas cylinders somewhere in the ward, but I doubt the nurses have to wheel in gas cylinders and tighten on a regulator to supply one patient.

    I’m confident any modern hospital uses a central, very large liquid oxygen supply for the building. Piping throughout the structure distributes low-pressure gas to whoever needs it. The problem right now might just be the NUMBER of people who need oxygen. Rising demand (that means people desperately gasping for breath with failing lungs) might be draining the tanks faster than ever before.

    So, OK, maybe doctors and nurses do need to be told, “Don’t just crank the valve wide open.” It wouldn’t be a problem now if our illustrious leader hadn’t failed totally to respond after he (believed that he) got the first wave under control.

    Friends, we need to protect ourselves and each other. Mask up, keep your distance, wash your hands often. God might not help those who help themselves–but God help us if we rely on Jason Kenney to keep us safe.

    Reply
  18. Scotty on Denman

    December 2nd, 2020

    The feds are a foe and
    Science don’t know and
    They’re rustling shall not us impinge
    We’ll get our deserts and
    Whoop till it hurts and
    Ride the wild wexity fringe

    Reply

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