Alberta’s Premier is facing criticism for incorrectly referring to COVID-19 as a form of influenza and suggesting the homeless population already has a level of immunity, as he attempts to cast the pandemic as a minimal threat to most people.
Jason Kenney used a speech in the legislature this week to explain his government’s push to reopen the economy, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to harm the economic and social well-being of the entire province to guard against a disease that predominantly kills the very old or people with pre-existing health conditions. Rather, he argued that the focus must be on protecting the most vulnerable.
Mr. Kenney incorrectly referred to COVID-19 as influenza several times during that speech and claimed that some homeless people have immunity. He also referred to COVID-19 as influenza in a subsequent radio interview on the same day.
“One thing I think we’re learning, epidemiologically, is that [the homeless] population has a very high level of immune resistance, of immunity and resilience against an influenza of this nature,” Mr. Kenney told the legislature on Wednesday as he read from prepared remarks.
Neither assertion is correct, said Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist who teaches at the University of Calgary’s medical school.
Dr. Fiest said the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is not related to influenza. She added there is limited evidence that people who have been exposed to the virus actually have immunity and, if so, to what degree.
“It’s concerning because some people just don’t have the science, and so for those people, I worry that it downplays the severity,” she said in an interview.
“I think it also trivializes the difference between COVID-19 and influenza."
On Thursday, Mr. Kenney said he is aware that COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus, but he argued that previous flu pandemics provide a useful comparison.
“The epidemiologists, in assessing the threat posed by COVID-19, look at experiences that we’ve had in the past. Our Public Health Act refers specifically to an influenza pandemic,” he said in Edmonton.
“Of course this is a novel coronavirus. The experience that we’ve had in the past dealing with pandemics of this nature have typically been around influenzas. And so in some respects, the two are analogous.”
On his claim about immunity, his press secretary, Christine Myatt, referred in an e-mail to media coverage about a homeless shelter in the United States where people tested positive for COVID-19, but showed no symptoms.
Alison Thompson, who studies health ethics and pandemics at the University of Toronto’s pharmacy faculty, agreed that it’s simply incorrect to refer to COVID-19 as the flu or treat them as comparable.
The two viruses infect and kill people at different rates and, unlike the flu, she noted, there are currently no effective treatments or vaccines for COVID-19.
“First of all: wrong virus. This is not influenza," she said. "Making that comparison is really underplaying the severity of the situation. "
Prof. Thompson said it’s important for politicians and public health officials to be accurate when they talk about COVID-19 and its risks.
“We know that public trust in politicians and in public health spokespeople is really essential in getting people on-board with complying with any measures that they need to take," she said.
“So this is doubly damaging."
The province is in the first phase of its relaunch plan, which has allowed retailers, restaurants, daycares, hair salons and barber shops to reopen, with restrictions, along with some non-essential medical procedures.
Mr. Kenney has said the second phase, which will also include libraries, movie theatres, additional medical procedures and services such as tanning and pedicures, could begin some time next month.
He has defended the economic shutdowns as necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19, but he said they cannot continue indefinitely when the risk to the overall population is low.
Alberta has recorded 6,955 cases and 143 deaths. There were 652 active cases as of Thursday and 50 people in hospital, including four in intensive care.
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story was missing context for Jason Kenney's reference to immunity to COVID-19. He specifically claimed that the homeless population has a high levle of immunity to COVID-19.