David Staples: COVID brain is real and it's making us all crazy

The intensive care unit at the Royal Alexandra Hospital would have been overwhelmed if the provincial government had not brought in COVID restrictions last fall.The intensive care unit at the Royal Alexandra Hospital would have been overwhelmed if the provincial government had not brought in COVID restrictions last fall. Photo by Shaughn Butts /Postmedia, file

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If there’s not an official condition known as COVID brain, there should be.

I suffer from it now and then. I strongly suspect you do as well.

It’s a condition caused by too much intake of inflammatory and contradictory information about COVID, about whether or not lockdowns or masks work, about the pros and cons of various medical treatments, and about the conflicting information on vaccine supply and safety.

COVID brain is real and it’s making us crazy, or at least it’s doing so in combination with the monster anxiety flowing from the disease and related lockdown.

Like many of you, I dig in each day and try to make sense of numerous COVID-related charts, graphs, radio interviews and newspaper stories, many of them presenting conflicting views but all of them claiming to have science on their side.

This process has left me increasingly skeptical. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the pandemic, it’s to carefully assess every piece of new information. It’s easy to get worked up and angry about some chart or opinion piece, in particular those that support my own biases. That’s exactly the seductive kind of information that I’m more likely to buy into too readily.


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For example, this weekend I saw a chart online out of a Western Standard story that heated up my blood momentarily.

The chart shows annual intensive care unit (ICU) admissions in Alberta. In 2020, ICU admissions were 22,409 patients, lower than they were in the previous four years, 2016 to 2019, when they were 23,439, 23,648, 23,939 and 24,010 respectively.

The 2020 decline had many people questioning if our health-care system had ever really been threatened with being overwhelmed. As writer Cory Morgan, executive director of the pro-industry Suits and Boots organization, put it: “It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not even remotely as dangerous as we have been warned. The ICU numbers in Alberta make it stark and clear. After an entire year of being warned that our health-care system is on the brink of collapse, we discover that ICU ADMISSIONS ACTUALLY WENT DOWN IN 2020! This is not a typo.”

I accept that lockdowns have been necessary, but I also have repeatedly questioned the extent and severity of them. That’s my bias, which made me open to this data and to Morgan’s opinion.

And that’s when an internal alarm bell went off.

Was Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the provincial government really so wrong to bring in strict lockdown measures? Or was there some other possible explanation for this data?

I first checked to see if the data was accurate. Alberta Health Services confirmed its validity.

Next I talked with Dr. Curtis Johnston, a medical adviser at the AHS emergency coordinating centre and an ICU physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital.


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The first thing Johnston noted is that while overall ICU admissions were lower in 2020, admissions shot up in November and December 2020.

There are 173 ICU beds in Alberta set aside for general adult admissions, usually for post-operative patients or patients who have suddenly become gravely ill due to an accident or disease, such as COVID.

After COVID hit there was a drop in ICU admissions, in part because people were out and about much less, so there were fewer collisions and other accidents, Johnston said. This is part of the reason for the overall lower numbers this year.

In November and December 2020, however, two things started happening — the number of COVID patients shot up and the overall number of ICU patients shot up, surging past ICU capacity, even as the government brought in stringent lockdown measures.

At peak COVID in late December, 153 of the 173 beds were taken up by COVID patients, meaning there was almost no room for every other kind of emergency patient. Overflow ICU beds were found for the 200-plus ICU patients swamping the system. A significant number of surgeries had to be cancelled to free up beds, Johnston said.

“I think we were all very concerned that if public health measures were not effective that it could potentially overwhelm our health system.”

Have the lockdown measures been worth it?

“Without the public health measures that were undertaken throughout the province of Alberta, we would have overwhelmed the public health system.”

The cure for COVID brain is digging in and carefully weighing all sides of a complicated issue. It can take some time but in this case — and even as I’m no fan of lockdowns — I can’t get past the fact that if our government had failed to act late last fall, there would have been far more COVID deaths, along with massive turmoil in our hospitals.



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