Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has written her counterpart in Alberta to warn that the decision to end routine COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation at a time of increased transmission could put children at risk, as she urged the province not to declare victory over the virus too early.
In a letter to Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Ms. Hajdu wrote that the rapid spread of the Delta variant calls for more caution, not less – and asked him to explain the evidence and rationale behind the province’s changes, which were announced last week.
“Although this decision falls squarely within your jurisdiction, experts from Alberta and around the country are voicing their significant concerns,” she said in the letter, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.
“I echo the Canadian Paediatric Society, who has called on you to recognize that this ‘unnecessary and risky gamble’ could worsen the spread of the virus and put children at risk.”
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, announced that the province would no longer legally require people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate beginning on Aug. 16. As well, routine testing will no longer be offered for most people and contact tracers won’t notify people who may have been exposed to the virus, except in cases that involve high-risk settings such as long-term care facilities.
The changes have been widely criticized by public-health experts and prompted several protests in the province. The Opposition New Democrats called on the government to reverse course. The Canadian Paediatric Society said Alberta’s approach is particularly dangerous for children under 12, who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Ms. Hajdu noted in her letter that recent federal modelling projected a sharp increase in infections in Alberta, as well as in other provinces.
“We have seen in previous waves that public-health measures, including isolation and quarantine, are very important and effective tools for controlling resurgence. Indeed, these measures have saved lives,” she writes.
Mr. Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney have defended the changes, which they said were proposed by Dr. Hinshaw and driven by data. Mr. Kenney has brushed aside criticism by suggesting those who are calling for continued restrictions are doubting the effectiveness of vaccines and are needlessly sowing fear.
Brett Boyden, a spokesman for Alberta’s Health Minister, said Dr. Hinshaw “has been very clear on the sound medical reasoning behind her decisions” and added that Dr. Hinshaw talks regularly with with her federal counterparts.
Dr. Hinshaw released an op-ed to media outlets on Wednesday in which she apologized for causing “confusion, fear or anger,” but also defended the province’s shift. She said the changes are about learning to live with COVID-19, and argued that the province cannot sustain treating the pandemic as a continuing emergency in which every cough or runny nose requires a medical test and long periods of isolation.
“As vaccine coverage has changed the nature of the province-wide risk of COVID-19, it is time, in my opinion, to shift from province-wide extraordinary measures to more targeted and local measures,” she wrote.
Dr. Hinshaw also addressed the concerns about unvaccinated children. She argued the risk to young children is too low to justify the mental-health effects and other harms caused by public-health measures such as isolation.
“This doesn’t mean we should ignore the risk to kids from any of these things, but I believe it means we should consider COVID risk in context of all other risks that we face,” wrote Dr. Hinshaw, who added that she has two children of her own who are under 12.
Alberta had by far the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infections in Canada during the second and third waves, including a period in May when the province had the highest rates of new infections anywhere in North America. Alberta also led the country for hospital and ICU admissions late last year.
The province has seen an increase in infections in recent weeks, with daily cases more than doubling in the past week alone, and it now has among the highest infection rates in Canada. Dr. Hinshaw has urged the public to pay less attention to infection numbers, which she said no longer predict hospital admissions and deaths.
Alberta also has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country. About 76 per cent of eligible people have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is the second-lowest rate in the country, ahead of Saskatchewan. The province is also lagging behind the national rate for second doses, with 66 per cent of people fully immunized.