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Dr. Deena Hinshaw provides an update on COVID-19 and back-to-school guidance in Edmonton on Aug. 13, 2021. Dr. Hinshaw might have apologized, but she did not totally back down from her position.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Alberta plan to treat COVID-19 much like any other respiratory disease is on hold. Anyone with COVID-19 in the province will still be legally required to isolate, and wide-scale testing that was supposed to wrap up at the end of the month will be in place until the end of September. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from many in the province when the news came out.

Prior to this walk-back from Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw on Friday, there had been nearly two weeks of protests, as well as a stream of concern from doctors, nurses and others saying the planned easing of pandemic measures was too much too fast.

Many Albertans questioned the push to dismantle key parts of the COVID-19 surveillance system while cases and hospitalizations are going up, and while so much about the more contagious Delta variant is unknown. Business owners fretted about the hit to the province’s reputation, and to consumer confidence. There was genuine worry from some parents that back-to-school this year was going to be more risky than in no-vaccine 2020.

No one is saying the decision to keep COVID-19 measures in place for a little longer is immune from criticism – some vocal conservatives who don’t like government-mandated health restrictions are angered by the move. And on the other side, there’s still concern that other health restrictions are mostly lifted, and that masks won’t be universally mandated in schools.

Alberta NDP says it has persuaded province to delay plans to end COVID-19 measures

But most of the COVID-19 policy decisions that had shocked and angered many Albertans are now deferred to Sept. 27, giving the province some much-needed breathing room. The bigger issue is whether Albertans can get over being blindsided by the original move from the once reassuringly steady Dr. Hinshaw.

Dr. Hinshaw did say the plan was always subject to change, and on Friday she explained she made the decision to slow down the “COVID-19 transition” out of concern about the rising number of children in U.S. hospitals with the disease, and a significantly higher-than-expected number of people in Alberta hospitals suffering serious symptoms.

Referring to provincial modelling that hasn’t yet been publicly released, she said officials would have expected to have about 90 total cases in Alberta hospitals right now. Instead, there are 146 cases – 62 per cent higher than the projections.

Dr. Hinshaw also said she had originally used data from the United Kingdom to predict what would happen to children in the province. But since Alberta has a lower rate of vaccination than the U.K., she is now more closely examining the situation in the United States – where hospitalizations for children have started to rise significantly in states with lower immunization rates.

Widespread vaccination in adults helps protect children under 12, who aren’t yet eligible to be immunized. Alberta’s vaccination rate of 67 per cent of those eligible isn’t as low as in Florida, but it isn’t as high as in the U.K. – where Dr. Hinshaw said the Delta variant did not cause a different experience in children than previous COVID-19 waves.

But it was only recently, in the last week of July, when Dr. Hinshaw and her officials first announced the “transition” plan. At the time, they said they were confident that Alberta’s vaccination rate was high enough to withstand the Delta variant. Just two weeks later, it’s clear they shouldn’t have spoken with such certainty.

So where does Dr. Hinshaw go from here? Can she regain the trust of an uneasy province?

She expressed awareness of this anxiety in her news conference, where she apologized for the way she communicated the changes – which she had already done a week ago – but also acknowledged that “the rapid pace” has caused distress.

Releasing the data she is using to make her decisions would be a start toward helping people understand where she is coming from. She said she will do this in the days ahead. She also needs to be clearer about the long game: Public-health officials might all assume that, at some point soon, lifting the special status that has been given to COVID-19 for the past 18 months has to happen – that resources are needed elsewhere, and it is all just a question of timing. But regular people who have taken the pandemic seriously, and who have grown accustomed to isolating, contact tracing and testing, obviously have a hard time letting go of those public-health monitoring systems.

Being more transparent about the province’s modelling and projections could help deflect questions about whether decisions are being driven by a United Conservative Party government that prides itself on being the first to lift COVID-19 measures. And it’s important to point out Dr. Hinshaw is still a public servant. She only provides advice to Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and others in cabinet. They make the final call.

As Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Alberta, pointed out on Twitter this week: disagreeing with or debating actions and choices is fine, but assuming that public-health leaders have some evil or malignant motivation is not. “These are complex times and I don’t think anyone in public health is trying to endanger the public’s health,” she said.

Dr. Hinshaw might have apologized on Friday, but she did not totally back down from her position. The province will still move, in weeks or months, to shed COVID-19′s special public-health status. She emphasized that the deferral was only a pause “to monitor and assess” before taking a next step forward.

“Reasonable people can disagree on this, and there are different possible paths forward, as we can see around the world,” she added.

“There’s no one single right answer to COVID.”

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