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By Nia Williams and Rod Nickel
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Premier Jason Kenney promised Albertans the "best summer ever" when he lifted most COVID-19 public health restrictions on July 1, but a surge in infections has overwhelmed the province's hospitals and left him fighting to save his political career.
The western Canadian province is often called "the Texas of the North" for its oil and gas wealth, cowboy culture and conservative, independent mindset.
As in Texas, COVID-19 has run rife in Alberta, which has the highest rate of active infections among Canada's 10 provinces, at nearly four times the national average. It and neighboring Saskatchewan also have the country's lowest vaccination rates.
The fourth wave of the coronavirus has left Alberta's healthcare system teetering on the brink of collapse, with little respite in sight.
Intensive care units in Alberta are 84% full, according to the latest update, even with nearly 200 "surge" beds added, close to the 90% level at which critical care triage protocols kick in, forcing doctors to ration patient care and prioritize those with the best chance of survival.
"Our job is to save lives, not choose who gets to live and die," said Shazma Mithani, an emergency doctor at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital and the Stollery Children's Hospital.
"We are in the absolute worst situation we have ever been in, and it was entirely preventable, all of it."
The only reason intensive care units have room for new patients each day is because people already there are dying, said Verna Yiu, chief executive of Alberta Health Services.
Kenney apologized on Sept. 15 for mishandling the pandemic and imposed a requirement for proof of vaccination to enter certain businesses. He got Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a frequent political foe, to agree to provide military help to airlift patients to other provinces.
Kenney, 53, tapped into Alberta's populist streak when after years as a Cabinet minister in Ottawa, he returned west to lead the newly created United Conservative Party (UCP) and win the 2019 provincial election.
In July, the province lifted nearly all restrictions in time for the Calgary Stampede rodeo, one of Canada's most popular tourist draws. The following month, the UCP printed "Best Summer Ever" ball caps, even as cases spiked and Kenney disappeared on vacation.
He returned in September to offer unvaccinated Albertans a C$100 cash incentive to get inoculated and unveil a vaccine passport system, despite previously promising that would never happen.
Kenney replaced his health minister, but many Albertans remain furious.
Some political commentators blamed a dip in Conservative support in last week's federal election on frustrations with Kenney, once tipped as a potential federal leader of the party.
"I think the only way for the UCP to survive is for Jason Kenney to go," said Drew Barnes, an independent member of Alberta's legislative assembly, who was kicked out of the UCP caucus in May after calling for the premier's resignation.
Last week, a number of UCP lawmakers publicly criticized Kenney. Facing a caucus revolt, he agreed to a leadership review in the spring, bringing it forward from next autumn. The next provincial election is in 2023, but many voters want Kenney gone before then.
Kenney did not respond to a request for comment but told a radio show on Sunday: "We have been hit hard with this fourth wave primarily because we went into this with the lowest vaccination rate in Canada." He also rejected calls for a "hard lockdown" to stem the rise in cases.
"Kenney has bought himself some time but he's now operating with a sword over his head," said Tom McIntosh, professor of political science at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
SASKATCHEWAN ALSO STRUGGLING
Alberta and Saskatchewan fueled skepticism about the seriousness of the pandemic from the start, with mixed messages that sometimes urged people to stay home and at other times urged them to go out and support local business, said McIntosh.
Saskatchewan, whose right-leaning premier, Scott Moe, has mirrored Kenney's approach to the pandemic, is also buckling under a fourth wave as intensive care beds filled up and its only children's hospital began admitting adult COVID-19 patients.
But Moe is not facing similar backlash within his party. His Saskatchewan Party formed 24 years ago, unlike the UCP, which is only 4 years old and prone to conflicts between its center-right moderates and far-right rural members.
Moe has blamed unvaccinated people for driving up infections.
During the spring wave, Alberta and Saskatchewan pulled out all the stops to manage patients, recalling retired medical staff and double-shifting others, before vaccines were expected to end the pandemic.
Now staff are burned out, said Alexander Wong, an infectious disease physician at Regina General Hospital.
"That is just soul-crushing for a lot of people," said Wong, who is calling for a lockdown. "We're basically right up to our chins now."
(Reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary, Alberta, and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Peter Cooney)