Published:August 26, 2021
An increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic’s first wave led hospitalizations for severe liver damage to nearly double Alberta, say University of Calgary researchers.
But because so many people were reluctant to go to the hospital during that time, the numbers are likely far worse, said Dr. Abdel-Aziz Shaheen, who led the study at the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine.
“There could have been even higher hospitalization numbers, but due to the restrictions in place during the first wave of COVID-19, people suffering from alcoholic hepatitis may have chosen not to go to the hospital,” he said.
“This is like an iceberg; we’re only seeing the tip of it — the very sick people.”
“I expected an increase but I didn’t expect it to double.”
From March to September 2020, admissions for alcoholic hepatitis went from 11.6 per 10,000 admissions to 22.1 out of 10,000 admissions.
The age of those patients also fell, from an average of 48 to 43, the study found, and a large number — 38 per cent — came from rural areas, a figure that’s also nearly doubled, said Shaheen.
It’s believed isolation and boredom caused by COVID-19 restrictions led to heavier, less controlled drinking, with nearly 25 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 saying their consumption of alcohol increased during that time last year.
Across Canada during those pandemic months, alcohol consumption increased by between 18 per cent and 45 per cent, said the researcher.
Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to advanced liver disease, the need for an organ transplant and death, but physicians say it’s reversible with a reduction in drinking.
It’s different from the more gradual cirrhosis of the liver in that its victims’ organs are overcome over a short period of time.
“Mainly, they don’t have any medical history,” said Shaheen.
Of those being admitted to hospital, about 12 per cent were treated in ICU and six to seven per cent died, states the study.
Larger numbers of severe cases than captured by the study are almost inevitable, “because there are people trying not to come (to hospital), people were dying,” said Shaheen.
“Many people are not aware of how serious this condition is.”
Provincial governments, including Alberta’s, allowed liquor and cannabis stores to remain open while other retail outlets were shuttered in the spring of 2020, deeming them essential.
While suicide rates in Alberta didn’t increase last year, many medical experts say the pandemic has led to a worsening of mental health among the population.
Shaheen said similar results were found by researchers in the United Kingdom, France and the United States.
A Calgary addictions expert said he’s not surprised to hear of the spike in hospitalizations, citing a dramatic climb in clients.
“Since the start of covid, people enquiring about help with addiction have gone from two to three per week to two to three per day,” said Brad Oneil, program director at Recovery Calgary.
“I have been doing this type of work for 15 years and this is the first time I have ever had to turn people away because I cannot take any more clients.”
Booze sales during the pandemic have been markedly higher for at least one major retailer — by as much as 15 per cent since the arrival of the virus, said Jamie Burns, CEO of Alcanna.
“They were up extremely high compared to pre-pandemic times because the bars and restaurants were closed or restricted,” he said.
But he said anecdotes and data from his industry suggest people’s drinking hadn’t increased, they’re just doing it more at home.
“They just switched where they did it . . . it’s a very strong consensus,” said Burns, whose company operates Liquor Depot, Wine & Beyond and Ace Liquor Stores.
More than one in five Canadians who drink have been staying home and consuming more alcohol than they were before March 2020, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) said last year.
The think-tank also said a Nanos poll showed 80 per cent of those drinkers stated their alcohol consumption had stayed roughly the same as it was before COVID-19.
But the centre also expressed worries over an increase in drinking among women.
“From a gender perspective, there is concern. On average, female consumers of alcohol are reporting 2.4 alcoholic drinks per occasion — which is above the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines,” Dr. Catherine Paradis, CCSA senior research and policy analyst, said in a news release.
Shaheen said medical authorities in Alberta are embarking on a campaign of patient and family doctor awareness of the situation.
The U of C study will continue into 2022 to analyze later phases of the pandemic.