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Premier Danielle Smith is expecting a report next month on the integrity of Alberta’s COVID-19 data and decision-making from a little-known task force led by a physician who, at the height of the pandemic, claimed the government manipulated statistics to usher in restrictions.

In November, 2022, one month after becoming Premier, Ms. Smith, directed then health minister Jason Copping to create a task force to review years of health data and make recommendations regarding a future pandemic. The United Conservative Party government gave the group a sweeping mandate to explore whether the “right data” was collected and assess the “integrity, validity, reliability and quality of the data/information used to inform pandemic decisions” by Alberta Health Services and other health organizations, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Gary Davidson, former chief of emergency medicine at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, was installed as chair of the task force about a year ago. In September, 2021, Dr. Davidson claimed that the government had overblown the COVID-19 crisis in hospitals, an assertion AHS quickly rebuked. At that time, AHS data showed Alberta was being crushed by the fourth wave of the pandemic, with deaths and illnesses climbing, leaving intensive care units straining under the patient load.

Joining Dr. Davidson on the task force are other health professionals who have expressed opinions counter to mainstream medical consensus around vaccines, public-health restrictions and other facets of the pandemic.

The government, which has said little about the group’s existence or mandate, earmarked $2-million for the review.

The task force is separate from a $2-million COVID-19 review panel, chaired by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, that examined Alberta’s legislation and governing processes. Mr. Manning, in his final report released last November, recommended government officials consider “alternative scientific narratives.”

Ms. Smith became leader of the UCP in large part because of her opposition to public-health restrictions implemented under former premier Jason Kenney, skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines and displeasure with AHS.

Alberta COVID-19 panel calls for consideration of ‘alternative scientific narratives’ for future health emergencies

In November, 2022, AHS completed an internal review into its management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings were never released, but information obtained by The Globe and Mail show it concluded AHS executed an “effective public health response, and excel in its COVID-19 laboratory testing, IT, data & analytics and procurement.”

Around the same time, Ms. Smith ordered a data review of the “last several years of health information” with recommendations on how to better manage a future pandemic. The Health Ministry’s annual report for 2022-23, published last June, stated that a “COVID-19 data task force” matching that description had been established.

The government’s task force is run through the Health Quality Council of Alberta, a provincial agency that conducts health care research. In March, 2023, the HQCA provided Dr. Davidson with a project description and terms of reference. The expectation was that a final report would be delivered to Alberta’s Health Ministry by that December, according to these documents.

Andrea Smith, press secretary to Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in a statement Thursday that the final report is now expected in May. It is not clear what led to its delay.

The task force’s aim, she said, is to review Alberta’s pandemic experience and compare it with other jurisdictions.

The task force was designed to include around 10 health professionals from diverse specialties, according to her statement and documents obtained by The Globe. She provided a list of five members, but hours later clarified only three people are currently on the task force.

Working alongside Dr. Davidson, according to the government, are anesthetist Blaine Achen, who was among a group of physicians that legally challenged AHS over its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy in 2021, and epidemiologist David Vickers, who has written several articles questioning the impact of public health measures limiting COVID-19 spread.

Dr. Davidson declined to comment and the other two task force members did not respond to a request for comment.

Four people stepped away from the task force, including two doctors who hold more conventional views regarding the pandemic.

Primary-care physician Ernst Greyvenstein said in a statement he removed himself from the task force after its second meeting. Chris Sarin, a medical officer of health with Indigenous Services Canada, said he was “unable to maintain his tenure” and left shortly after he was appointed, according to a statement sent from the federal ministry.

Pediatric neurologist Eric Payne, who filed a separate legal challenge in 2021 against AHS over its vaccine policy, resigned, according to the government. Immunologist Jessica Rose, who has been accused of misrepresenting data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System in the United States to claim vaccines are unsafe, also departed.

In an interview Ms. Rose said she only attended one meeting before she resigned because she had “very little time to dedicate to the cause.”

“There were going to be two sides. It was going to be people who are like completely on board with the shots, mandates, all that stuff, and then there were the people who aren’t,” she said. “That’s one thing that I liked the sound of, actually, because it’s not effective to present anyone with one side of the argument.”

Lisa Brake, a spokesperson for the HQCA, said the $2-million budget flows through the council as an “administrative function only.” She said the government provided a list of medical professionals for the HQCA to invite to the task force but otherwise had no involvement in the work or approach of the group.

The council typically gathers and analyzes information itself to inform recommendations and improve health services, making its role with the task force rare.

Alberta is paying task force members a government standard honorarium of $525 up to and including four hours and $131 for each additional hour. Members were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement and complete a conflict-of-interest declaration form that states “members are expected to act impartially.”

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