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Canada’s healthcare workers brace for the painful blow of a punishing third wave

For days now, as the Covid-19 case count mounted and horrifying hospital admissions surged, Canadians seemed dismayed and asked: how could this happen here, where most people dutifully followed public health guidelines?

But many of Canada’s healthcare workers were telling anyone who would listen that some provincial governments reopened too quickly after a difficult post-Christmas surge.

“So, we’re stuck, where we have cases out of control, hospitals completely full, not enough vaccine supply available and months of difficult public health measures ahead of us,” said Dr. Michael Warner, the director of critical care at the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, in an interview with CNN.

Provincial governments across the country are now reckoning with a damaging third wave of Covid-19, one that might imperil the universal healthcare system of which Canadians are so fiercely proud.

From coast to coast, across thousands of miles and hundreds of hospitals, many provinces are now anxiously watching the case count rise as variants of concern spread a more contagious virus to younger Canadians and land more people in hospital.

And nowhere in Canada is the hospital situation as critical as it is in Ontario, the country’s most populous province.

“The government didn’t listen to scientists, they didn’t listen to epidemiologists, they didn’t listen to doctors other than their chief medical officer of health. And because they failed to listen to scientists, they thought they could negotiate themselves out of this virus, but the virus is too strong, the variant is a different disease,” said Warner, telling CNN on Friday his ICU was working at 115% capacity.

Ontario premier Doug Ford defended his actions Friday as he announced new restrictions, including extending a stay-at-home order until at least mid-May, prohibiting indoor and outdoor gatherings, and restricting non-essential travel in and out of the province.

At a press briefing Friday, Ford insisted he has always acted on the science, adding that in the case of recent rising critical care admissions, he drafted the stricter public health policies “the second” he found out.

“Whatever we put into place though, it’s going to take time to take affect so right now, the trajectories of Covid rises are really baked in and I think the next 2 to 3 weeks for Ontario and Canada are going to be very, very, tough.” said Dr. Fahad Razak, who treats coronavirus patients at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

On Saturday, Ontario again shattered fresh records for both hospital and ICU admissions. Modeling released by the province’s expert advisory panel Frida detailed a dire snapshot of the crisis already unfolding in hospitals and how the situation is likely to get even worse.

“Notice that our hospitals can no longer function normally, they are bursting at their seams, we’re setting up field hospitals and we’re separating critically ill patients from their families by helicoptering them across the province for care, our children’s hospitals are now admitting adults as patients. This has never happened in Ontario before it’s never happened in Canada before,” said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, Ontario’s science advisory co-chair.

Brown was strikingly blunt about the worst-case scenario that could see Ontario rationing care, especially finding critical care spots for patients saying, “there may just not be the ability to put them into these types of beds.”

“We will be there, we will do our best, but I’m trained to save people, not to use a checklist to decide if people are going to live or die, but that’s where we’re head and that’s my biggest fear and I think a lot of healthcare workers are beyond angry, I think we’re really forlorn about the situation we find ourselves in,” said Warner.

Throughout Canada, save for its Atlantic provinces that have worked hard to create a ‘bubble’ with some of the lowest incidence rates of Covid-19 in all of North America, the epidemiological data has been alarming.

Health Canada reported a 35% increase in hospitalizations and a more than 20% increase in ICU admissions throughout Canada in the week ending April 11th. More worrying still, the mortality trend is concerning, with a 38% increase in deaths in the last week alone.

Some public health professionals say many provinces reopened too much, too soon. And in Ontario, many healthcare providers say that, given their scarcity in Canada, vaccines should have been more quickly allocated to marginalized and racialized communities.

In many of Canada’s largest cities, essential workers in factories, meat processing plants and distribution centers have suffered through dangerous outbreaks.

Dozens of Ontario’s doctors have taken to social media demanding these workers have safer working conditions and easy access to sick pay when they contract the virus or must be tested for it.

Most provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec are beginning to concentrate on these workplaces and community hotspots with mobile testing and vaccination clinics.

Some healthcare workers, however, are resigned that those programs were not put in place quickly enough to spare them and their patients from the ravages of a third wave, much worse than the first two.

“It’s clearly a crisis, we’re in the midst of a crisis now, it’s not a week away, we’re in it right now,” said Razak.

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