Guest Blog Post by Webcam Westhead: COVID-19 public health guidance– armchair epidemiologists need not apply

By Cam Westhead

One of the first things I learned in nursing school was not to panic during times of crisis. Medical professionals are trained to act like a duck – appearing calm on top of the water but paddling like mad underneath.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s demeanour is a prime example of this training in action.


Registered Nurse Cam Westhead (Photo: Cam Westhead/Supplied).

But when ducks are at risk of drowning they cause a commotion. That’s why so many of Alberta’s health care community are calling loudly for measures like a circuit-breaker lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. With hospitals bursting at the seams, staff shortages, intensive care unit beds over-capacity, and our infection curve taking off like a rocket, health care workers are barely treading water right now and they’re sounding the drowning alarm.

That’s why Rick Bell’s Nov. 17 column dismissing them as mere “paper shufflers and expert mouthpieces and safe and secure inhabitants of the ivory tower” was so deeply insulting. In my 16 years of nursing I’ve ever heard anything quite so disparaging. The last thing we need right now is an amateur mouthpiece belittling those who are desperately trying to help us avert disaster.

If Postmedia’s Calgary Sun political columnist won’t listen to thousands of health care workers or Calgary’s head of emergency management – whose job it is not just to manage emergencies but also to avoid them in the first place – who will he listen to?

As a former operating room nurse I’m currently 2nd Vice-President of United Nurses of Alberta, and I’ve been listening to the more than 30,000 Alberta Registered Nurses, Registered Psychiatric Nurses and other front-line health care workers UNA represents. They are overworked, frustrated and fed up with having their legitimate concerns dismissed as alarmist and being accused of fear mongering.

Morale among health care workers is at an all-time low. Not just because Health Minister Tyler Shandro has waged a campaign of defamation against them – during a pandemic, no less – and plans to lay off 11,000 of them and roll back compensation, but because their warning flares and cries for help have been met with indifference from the Kenney Government and condescension from professional commentators like Mr. Bell.


Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

For a glimpse of Alberta’s future if we fail to act, we need only look two provinces to the east, where Manitobans wish they’d enacted their lockdown sooner. While Mr. Bell sides with the anti-lockdown protesters there, what advice does he have for the health care workers who now must decide which patients get an ICU bed and which don’t? There are no bunk beds in the ICU.

By the way, hospital beds don’t provide care for the ill. Highly skilled staff do. But due to occupational exposure to the virus and the requirement to self-isolate, they are in ever short and diminishing supply, even though physical beds and ventilators may not be.

This is an underreported story that deserves more attention from media.

Mr. Bell’s column won’t age well because COVID-19 thrives when we look the other way and pretend there is no crisis.

Now more than ever we need to stop listening to armchair epidemiologists and backseat experts, writing from a position of privilege, and start heeding the actual experts on the front lines like the tens of thousands of health care workers who are pleading for help by way of a lockdown to help bend the curve.


Postmedia political columnist Rick Bell (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This health crisis has led to an economic crisis that’s no less concerning. Health care workers fully understand the devastating social and economic consequences a lockdown will impose on their fellow Albertans. Indeed, many of these same workers are the ones who help Albertans cope with those consequences.

But debilitation and death are worse. And if we don’t intervene now, we can expect far more severe economic outcomes, and much more death and suffering. To soften the economic and social consequences of a lockdown, Premier Kenney’s United Conservative Party Government has an ethical responsibility to erect a social safety net.

We’re at a point where our health care system can sink or swim. We have the civic and moral duty to throw it a lifesaver.

There is one thing health care workers and Mr. Bell can agree on: most Albertans do not want a lockdown.

But wants and needs are not the same. The reality is that Alberta’s COVID-19 crisis needs one. Now.

Cam Westhead is Second Vice-President of United Nurses of Alberta, the former MLA for Banff-Cochrane, and has been a Registered Nurse of 16 years.

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