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Crowds of people gather near food trucks at the Calgary Stampede on July 10. Alberta dropped all public-health restrictions over the summer, prompting a new wave of COVID-19.

Leah Hennel/The Globe and Mail

Alberta’s top health official says the fourth wave of COVID-19 that has swamped intensive-care units and forced the widespread cancellations of surgeries was set in motion when the province dropped all public-health restrictions over the summer.

Deena Hinshaw, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, also said she regretted her announcement in late July that the province would treat COVID-19 as an “endemic” respiratory illness like influenza. She said it wrongly gave some people the impression that the pandemic was over, which she added has made it more difficult to make the case for additional public-health measures.

She made the comments in a presentation to family doctors that was recorded Monday evening and then posted to social media.

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“I think that trajectory [of COVID-19 infections] was set when we removed all the public-health restrictions at the beginning of July,” Dr. Hinshaw said in a presentation to Alberta’s Primary Care Networks.

Alberta doctors warn province’s health system may soon fail

“If you look at the experiences of all of the different provinces across the country, those that have kept in base-level restrictions to manage interactions and close contacts are the ones that are not seeing the significant impact, and those of us that remove them are the ones that saw the significant, very steep rise.”

Dr. Hinshaw made her presentation as provincial health data showed Alberta had blown past its previous record for COVID-19 patients in intensive care; there were 212 people with the coronavirus in ICU as of the end of day Monday, compared with a peak of 182 in May. Internal projections showed that number could increase to 310 within two weeks and there has been no sign that the pace of infections or hospital admissions have slowed.

The province lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions on Canada Day, and then on July 28, Dr. Hinshaw announced the province would end widespread testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation as it shifted away from treating COVID-19 as a public-health emergency. She pointed to data out of Britain to argue vaccines had caused COVID-19 infections to become “decoupled” from hospital admissions, meaning the province could withstand an increase in cases with limited impact on hospitals.

She has since conceded those changes were premature, and on Monday said provincial data showed the theory wasn’t panning out within two weeks of that late July announcement. Dr. Hinshaw acknowledged the testing announcement created a narrative that the pandemic was ending.

“Whether or not it was my intention, what was heard at the end of July was: COVID’s over, we can walk away and ignore it,” she said. “That has had repercussions and I deeply regret how that has played out.”

The government has since delayed the plans to end testing, tracing and isolation, and this month announced the return of a provincewide mask mandate, a curfew on liquor sales, and an incentive to pay people $100 to get the shot.

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On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney’s office said he was was meeting with cabinet and caucus colleagues to discuss the current COVID-19 situation, and had cancelled a trip to Northern Alberta.

With donations to his party trailing the opposition NDP this year, the Premier had been set to attend a $1,500-a-person cocktail and dinner fundraiser at the Fort McMurray Golf Club on Wednesday evening.

As well, Mr. Kenney was scheduled to give a keynote address at the Oil Sands Conference and Trade Show about Alberta’s place in a world increasingly focused on fighting climate change. An early draft of the government’s agenda, released to media last week, had also listed a United Conservative Party caucus retreat would also take place in Fort McMurray on Wednesday and Thursday. That mention was deleted in a later draft of the government agenda.

The Premier has been largely absent from the public eye for the past month as COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions skyrocketed, aside from holding a news conference a week and a half ago.

Mr. Kenney has been under pressure to impose a mandatory vaccine passport system, similar to what has been implemented in other provinces, but the Premier has repeatedly ruled it out. Instead, the province is creating a voluntary system that will allow people to prove their vaccination status if a business requests it.

However, Health Minister Tyler Shandro appeared to leave the door open for a mandatory vaccine passport last week, saying the government would watch how those policies worked elsewhere and that he couldn’t predict what the province would do.

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Mr. Shandro’s press secretary, Steve Buick, suggested in an e-mail that Dr. Hinshaw’s comments on Monday were no different than what she has previously said publicly.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau criticized Mr. Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe for rejecting vaccine passports and failing to properly manage the pandemic.

“I feel bad – really bad – for those people in Alberta and Saskatchewan who stepped up to do the right thing,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Richmond, B.C., on Tuesday. “... And because of leadership that will not commit to keeping them safe in the right away, or even protecting the economy in the right way, they are facing greater risks.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and fatality rates of the provinces. Their per-capita infection rates are more than six times higher than Ontario and the death rate over the past two weeks is more than twice as high.

The two Prairie provinces also have the lowest vaccination rates in Canada.

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