N.L. sending small team of health-care workers to help Alberta battle COVID-19

Krista Balsom said she couldn’t help but smile when she heard there were health-care workers heading to help Alberta battle COVID-19 from the military, the Canadian Red Cross — and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Newfoundland always punches above its weight,” Balsom said in interview Friday. She’s from Random Island, near the central Newfoundland community of Clarenville. Like thousands of others from the East Coast province, she now lives in Fort McMurray, the northern Alberta oilsands town, after her family was lured there for work.

Balsom owns a publishing business and sits as a councillor with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray. In what is perhaps an indicator of just how many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians live in the region, she’s one of three people on council from the province.

“There’s such a strong connection between the people of Newfoundland and the people of Alberta, that goes back a long time,” she said, noting that when fires ravaged Fort McMurray in 2016, people in her home province held concerts, raffles and bake sales to raise funds for their affected family and friends.

“I’m not surprised in the least that (Newfoundlanders and Labradorians) are stepping up again, right now, to help in this time of crisis,” Balsom said.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced Thursday that a small team from Newfoundland and Labrador would be heading west to help out in Fort McMurray. The fourth wave of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm Alberta’s hospitals, and the teams from Newfoundland and Labrador, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Red Cross will help expand the province’s intensive care capacity, he said.

There were 247 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, Kenney said Thursday, adding that about 83 per cent of the province’s intensive care capacity was in use. Alberta health officials reported 1,706 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, for a total of 20,255 active infections across the province. Twenty more people died, officials said.

By contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador reported 41 new cases on Friday, for a total of 180 active cases — alarming numbers for a province used to near-zero daily case counts, but nowhere near the tallies in Alberta.

There were 306 active cases in Fort McMurray as of Thursday, local officials said in a news release.

“It’s a scary situation,” Balsom said.

On Friday morning, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey tweeted his thanks to the health-care workers who volunteered to head out to Fort McMurray. “Our provinces are tightly knit, and we are happy to help,” Furey wrote. He said his province will send five or six workers, adding that the government was still working out the details of the trip.

As Kenney announced Thursday that Newfoundland and Labrador would be pitching in, he repeated the popular joke that Fort McMurray is Newfoundland and Labrador’s second-largest city.

“I really want to thank my colleague Premier Andrew Furey for reaching out to us earlier in September to offer the same kind of assistance that Newfoundland and Labrador provided to Ontario in the spring,” Kenney said, referring to the team of health-care workers from the province — including Furey’s wife, Dr. Allison Furey — that went to Ontario last spring to help the province tackle its third wave of COVID-19.

Back in Fort McMurray, Balsom said when the pandemic first hit, she was worried Newfoundland and Labrador would be one of the first to buckle. The small province has towering health-care issues, including an aging population with high rates of disease and a large proportion of residents who don’t have a family doctor.

“And now look,” she said. “I see Newfoundland helping other provinces in their times of need during COVID ΓǪ and really that is because of the sacrifice of every single person in Newfoundland who has been taking COVID as seriously as they have.”

Sure, the team is small, she said, but they’ll provide much-needed relief for the doctors working in the hospital to beat back the disease.

“That team of five will have an exceptional impact on our hospital,” Balsom said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.