Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
It’s no secret that the Alberta government has been especially eager to move past the COVID-19 pandemic by ending public-health measures as soon as possible. Premier Jason Kenney has boasted about the light touch the province has taken on pandemic restrictions and the province’s tendency over the past year and a half to wait longer than other provinces to put them in place and then move more quickly to lift them.
Even still, the announcement this week that the government was not only lifting the few public-health measures that remained in the province, but also ending widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation for people who test positive caught many off guard, particularly at a time when COVID-19 infections in the province are increasing sharply.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced that the province is shifting to a new phase of its COVID-19 response, no longer treating it as a public-health emergency, but rather a fact of life in Alberta. She says the success of vaccines means that cases no longer result in high levels of hospital admissions or death, and simply knowing how many positive cases the province has doesn’t really help to figure out whether the health care system could be overwhelmed.
Dr. Hinshaw noted that most infections are now in unvaccinated people, and that we now know a lot more about the virus. And she said the health care system can’t sustain a situation where a large proportion of staff are devoted to testing for a single disease forever.
The announcement was panned by doctors as a reckless plan that ignores science. Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, called it “insanity.” The Opposition New Democrats called for it to be reversed. Critics have said it’s the wrong time to be letting up on public-health measures as cases rise and fears about the more-contagious Delta variant prompt other jurisdictions, including an area in the B.C. Interior, to reimpose mask mandates and other rules, rather than lift them.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and her deputy are warning that Alberta’s approach to COVID-19 could have ripple effects across the country. Dr. Theresa Tam said on Friday she continues to believe that quarantine and isolation is needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly the Delta variant.
Dr. Hinshaw was asked whether she was aware of any other place that is ending testing, tracing and isolation, but she argued that was difficult because few places have such high rates of vaccination. While it’s true that Canada has among the highest vaccination rates in the world, Alberta does not. The province has among the lowest rates in the country and is also behind places like the United Kingdom, Israel and a handful of American states – none of which have done what Alberta is now doing.
The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Cryderman spoke with Dr. Hinshaw about the rationale, and the Chief Medical Officer of Health said she understands it will take time for people to process such a big shift.
Dr. Hinshaw said she still wants people to stay home when they’re sick and that officials still have the ability to impose legal requirements in specific situations if a spike in cases causes problems in the health care system.
But she argued that the status quo can’t continue forever – nor does it need to, thanks to the success of vaccines.
“It’s also really important that we make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t dominate our use of resources when there are many, many other things that we need to be able to focus on.”
Blake Murdoch, an Edmonton-based senior research associate with the Health Law Institute, wrote in an op-ed for The Globe that the policies announced in Alberta will needlessly cost lives: “We can all look forward to COVID-19-positive individuals being legally present everywhere, from busy grocery stores to stadiums filled with more than 15,000 people. Apparently super-spreader events are now government-endorsed.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.