It was controversial but not surprising when Jason Kenney made Alberta the first province to lift major pandemic health restrictions a month ago. The conservative Premier only reluctantly imposed the measures in the battle against COVID-19, and telegraphed that he wanted his province to be the first to allow long-suffering businesses to open, for masks to come off and for the Stampede to go on.
The shock in Alberta was much deeper this week, as the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, announced a rapid unwinding of the stay-at-home rules and testing regimes that have become part and parcel of pandemic life. After 17 months of a hard fight against COVID-19, almost no one was expecting it all to disappear so quickly.
As of now in Alberta, contacts of positive cases are no longer being notified of exposure by contact tracers, nor are they legally required to isolate. By the middle of August, the legal requirement to isolate if you test positive will be gone (though voluntary isolation will still be recommended). The province will dispense with wide-scale testing measures. By the end of August, testing will be done only in doctors’ offices and hospitals. Almost all masking orders will be lifted.
All of this was decried as too much too early by critics, including many of the province’s already exhausted health care workers. The Canadian Paediatric Society called the changes an “unnecessary and risky gamble,” and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said it’s baffling that key efforts to track case counts and prevent coronavirus spread would be halted now. “It’s just too soon,” she said.
This is why people are worried: Alberta, at this moment, has rising case numbers. About one-third of the population remains unvaccinated, including young children. At this point, we still don’t know the full effects of long-COVID, how many breakthrough cases there will be or how badly the Delta variant will hit. On Friday, U.S. media reported that an internal document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the Delta variant spreads as easily as chickenpox.
But the Alberta government believes the relatively high uptake of vaccines among the province’s population means COVID-19 case counts are largely decoupled from hospitalizations, and that it’s time to move away from giving COVID-19 rarefied public-health status.
In an interview, Dr. Hinshaw said she understands that it will take time for people to process such a big shift, and that she still wants people to stay home when they’re sick. She said there will be adjustments to the plan as necessary, and that her officials will still have the ability to impose legal requirements in specific situations where there’s a spike in cases and a “health system impact.” She and her team have been working on plans for this approach for “some time,” she added, and they have Alberta data that show two vaccine doses are highly effective against the Delta variant.
“The reality is that our risk has dramatically changed in the last few months, as we’ve been able to very quickly ramp up our immunization program,” Dr. Hinshaw said.
“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.”
It is correct that other parts of the health care system are in desperate need of attention, and an increase in other respiratory illnesses now and into the fall – as people return to more normal socializing, as schools resume – could make large-scale testing and isolating logistically difficult and resource-intensive.
The problem is we don’t know whether the long battle against COVID-19 is truly nearing the end. There is still a risk to public health, and a risk that the Alberta government will have to backtrack.
And it’s not only about the specifics of the policy; it’s also about the optics. Will anyone be attracted to travel to or within Alberta when they know a coughing person sitting next to them on a patio has no legal obligation to isolate if they have COVID-19?
Deborah Yedlin, chief executive of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said the province had been on a solid path forward, but that she worries dropping the legal requirement for someone to isolate when they have COVID-19 is too far out of sync with other jurisdictions and could actually hurt Alberta businesses. “Perception matters,” Ms. Yedlin said.
The Alberta government has emphasized that this course is based on a plan from Dr. Hinshaw. But ultimately the chief medical officer of health, a public servant, only provides advice to the government.
Mr. Kenney was, unusually, nowhere to be seen as Dr. Hinshaw made her announcement this week. But it’s a policy that is on-brand for a premier who has said it’s “time for media to stop promoting fear” about COVID-19, and a government that has taken huge pride in being the first to drop most health restrictions.
“We’ve led the way throughout in the response to the pandemic, quite frankly,” Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said this week.
But it’s worth pointing out the political context: The Alberta NDP at this moment is out-fundraising and is more popular than Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party. His is a government badly in need of political wins.
Perhaps more crucially, Mr. Kenney still faces internal party strife that has quieted for now, but could again burst into the open. The Premier’s rural base is largely uneasy or unhappy with his leadership. Many of the people who voted for him in the 2019 election strongly dislike COVID-19 restrictions or rules. And their support is absolutely key to his government avoiding being a one-hit wonder.
With a report from the Canadian Press.
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