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Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta will no longer require people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate and will stop routine testing for mild symptoms, as new infections increase and a British Columbia region reimposes measures such as mandatory masking.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced the changes on Wednesday as she said it is time to treat COVID-19 as a long-term part of life in Alberta, similar to how the province approaches other respiratory viruses. Alberta will also stop contact tracing except for high-risk settings and masks will no longer be required in schools when classes resume in September.

B.C., meanwhile, reimposed mask requirements in the province’s Okanagan region in response to a spike in cases there. Non-essential travel into the region is being discouraged and activities in nightclubs will be limited.

Alberta has taken the most aggressive approach in the country to moving past COVID-19 measures and became the first in the country to lift almost all of its restrictions.

Most of the changes take effect on Aug. 16.

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At the same time, the province is lagging behind the rest of the country on vaccinations. About 76 per cent of eligible Albertans have at least one dose of a vaccine, and 64 per cent of the overall population has at least one dose, both statistics among the lowest in Canada.

COVID-19 cases plummeted after Alberta imposed increased restrictions in May, when it had the highest infection rates in North America. New infections bottomed out in mid-July and are now increasing: the seven-day average for new infections is 142, which has more than doubled in six days.

Hospital admissions have also fallen considerably, with 84 people in hospital as of Tuesday, though that number has increased slightly in recent days.

Dr. Hinshaw said the focus will now be on testing patients with severe illness for whom a positive COVID-19 test could change their treatment, and managing outbreaks in high-risk settings such as long-term care.

She said she understands the changes will seem dramatic, but she said devoting a large proportion of the healthcare system to a single disease is not sustainable. And she said the risks that COVID-19 poses to the population and the healthcare system has changed.

“When we heard of COVID-19, we knew little of the virus and we had no treatments and no vaccines,” she said. “This meant we needed to enact unprecedented measures to protect human life and to prevent our health care systems form being overwhelmed. We have made incredible sacrifices. Today we are in a very different place.”

She noted that nearly all new infections, hospital admissions and deaths involve people who are not vaccinated.

Beginning Thursday, close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to isolate, regardless of their vaccination status, and contact tracing will be limited to cases involving high-risk settings.

On Aug. 16, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will no longer be required to isolate, though people with symptoms will still be encouraged to stay home. Testing will be limited to cases in which the result could affect patient care; the province will shut down its mass testing sites at the end of August and instead shift testing to doctor’s offices and acute care facilities.

Health officials will respond to outbreaks in schools and daycares with similar measures that would be used for other respiratory illnesses. Masks won’t be required in schools but recommended during outbreaks.

Since the province will be conducting significantly fewer COVID-19 tests, it will use wastewater testing to monitor the level of spread in the community.

Edmonton infectious disease physician Leyla Asadi said she was shocked to learn of the changes announced on Wednesday, which she said were “a big gamble” and premature.

“There’s nowhere else in Canada that is taking these measures,” Dr. Asadi said. “And we’re so close to being at a point where we can safely move on – if we can minimize the fourth wave and get to a point where children can also be vaccinated, and where we can increase the vaccine uptake in the general population, then we could really have peace of mind.”

She was particularly concerned with the decision to scale back on testing and contact tracing.

“One of the most basic measures you can implement is if an individual tests positive, that they should be isolating and ... their close contacts should be in quarantine,” she said.

“It’s the lifting of those measures that is really, really reckless.”

Anand Kumar, an infectious disease physician in Winnipeg and professor at the University of Manitoba, also said the changes were happening too soon.

“I know that politicians want to be done with COVID, but COVID isn’t done with us,” Dr. Kumar said.

He noted some pockets of the province have low vaccination rates, and the timing of the lifting of measures in Alberta – combined with a recent increase in cases – could lead to a COVID-19 surge when schools resume in September.

“I think you’re going to see very substantial activity in terms of COVID in schools. I think you’re going to see a lot more kids in hospital, and in ICU.”

Alberta NDP Deputy Leader Sarah Hoffman said the government is getting rid of the systems that have kept people safe from COVID-19 too soon, before the province has a chance to see what the return to classrooms looks like.

“I’m concerned about the removal of notification requirements, and that a child could be infected with COVID-19, could go to school, could spread it to their classmates, and no one would be any the wiser,” said Ms. Hoffman, noting the start of the school year is just four weeks away.

Meanwhile in B.C., health officials are reinstating mandatory masking in the Okanagan region after an outbreak led to rapidly spreading infection driven primarily by unvaccinated residents between the ages of 20 and 40.

Sue Pollock, the chief medical health officer for Interior Health, said that starting at midnight Wednesday, masks will be mandatory in all indoor public places in central Okanagan communities including Peachland, West Kelowna, Kelowna, Lake Country and Westbank First Nation. Gyms and exercise facilities must also require patrons to wear masks and reintroduce enhanced cleaning and physical distancing.

A number of businesses in the central Okanagan have been forced to close due to illness so enforcement involving bylaw officers, WorkSafeBC and local officials will be increased as they follow up with establishments where three or more cases of COVID-19 have occurred, Dr. Pollock said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the new measures should send a message about the importance of immunization, especially as more transmissible variants can lead to clusters among people who are not vaccinated, she said.

With files from The Canadian Press

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that it was on Wednesday that Alberta would no longer require people to isolate if they were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. In fact, the measure begins Thursday. This version has been corrected.

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