Alberta doctors reflect on COVID-19 one year later and what’s next

It was one year ago Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw took the podium to announce the province’s first presumptive case of COVID-19.

The pandemic has since impacted every single Albertan. A year later, it still isn’t over.

“I think we all naively thought, ‘Oh, three months or six months or nine months,’” COVID-19 ward physician Dr. Neeja Bakshi said, reflecting back.

“I think by October, November, there was this realization this is going on a bit and we’ve got to buckle in and figure out how to manage.”

And it’s true — Albertans had to adapt quickly.

Less than two weeks after that first announced case, Premier Jason Kenney declared a provincial public health state of emergency. Schools and all non-essential businesses were shut down.

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As restrictions began to ease in May and more businesses reopened, it was still anything but back to normal.

Masks became mandatory in Alberta’s major cities — Calgary and Edmonton — at the beginning of August, gatherings were still very limited and Plexiglas and hand sanitizer were staples anywhere you went.

By late fall 2020, the virus took hold.

“With COVID(-19) it’s been a few steps forward, then many steps backward,” critical care epidemiologist Dr. Kirsten Fiest said.

Daily cases peaked at more than 1,800 in December.

Read more: Alberta reports 1,879 COVID-19 cases Saturday, expert warns ‘strong restrictive measures’ needed

Health officials warned that Alberta’s health-care system was near its breaking point — flooded with a record-high number of patients in COVID-19 wards and ICUs, all while dealing with coronavirus outbreaks in nearly every major Alberta hospital.

Read more: Hospital ICUs in Calgary reach record high for COVID-19 patients

Businesses were forced to close again to help mitigate the spread and Albertans were given the toughest restrictions to date: only hanging out with people who live in their own home.

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“The fact that Albertans still stepped up and still did what they were supposed to and that we did not see a post-Christmas surge, that was really heartwarming,” Bakshi said.

By late 2020 though, there was hope on the horizon.

The first vaccines arrived in Alberta and health-care workers, followed shortly after by long-term care seniors, rolled up their sleeves to get their shot.

Read more: Alberta health-care workers receive province’s 1st COVID-19 vaccines Tuesday

“It’s an amazing accomplishment to have a new virus that’s come in that’s completely changed the world and within a year we have solutions to this problem,” ICU physician Dr. Darren Markland said. “That in my mind is probably the greatest compliment to humanity, to science.”

What’s next?

The province’s plan is to give everyone 18 and older the ability to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of June.

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Medical experts warn life won’t simply snap back to normal, but we can look forward to some semblance of normalcy, soon.

“I’m hopeful that by the fall we will have some sort of normal life,” Bakshi said.

Fiest believes COVID-19 will likely be something we have to live with though, as new variants continue to emerge.

“There is a possibility we will have to get annual COVID(-19) vaccines,” she said. “We’ve seen how fast this disease can evolve.”

But after a year of learning everything they can about the virus, medical experts are better armed for whatever rounds are to come.

“We’ve developed a system, a plan, an ability to not only react to a pandemic, but plan, and be proactive, so we can prevent unnecessary mortality, unnecessary sickness in our population,” Fiest said. “I think a year from now we’ll be looking back with hope and energy, (and we’ll) see how well our population has done overcoming this virus.”

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Health officials stress we aren’t out of the woods yet, especially with new variants spreading in Alberta.

“I think there are going to be some twists and turns in the road before we get there,” Markland said.

What have we learned?

All three doctors agree, one of the biggest takeaways from the pandemic has little to do with the virus itself, rather the painstaking dose of perspective it’s given.

“We have learned that our greatest strength is being together,” said Markland. “Just the ability to see our parents again, to be able to have a family dinner. Those things will go a long way to making us feel better.”

“I think we’ve all learned a little bit about ourselves,” said Bakshi. “How much we can handle and how much we can’t.”

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“We’ve learned what’s important in our lives and what’s missing,” said Fiest.

“Although the past year this year has felt so long, in many respects I think it’s shown what people are capable of and what Albertans have been able to come together to protect each other.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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