When will the COVID-19 pandemic end? And how? For a glimpse into the future, consider the experiences of Alberta and Ontario.
Let’s begin in Alberta. In July, Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, essentially declared the pandemic over. In her judgment, COVID-19 had been reduced to an “endemic,” similar to influenza. So, as of July 1, a day the province saw only 76 new cases, it ended most of its mask mandates and social-distancing measures, and said it would end widespread testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation for close contacts of infected people as of July 28.
Premier Jason Kenney promised Albertans the “best summer ever.” He celebrated reopening earlier and more completely than other provinces. His director of issues management tweeted: “The pandemic is ending. Accept it.”
They had no choice. Alberta is now driving Canada’s pandemic. It recorded 10,766 new cases over the seven days up to Wednesday – more than the combined total of new infections over the same period in Quebec and Ontario, which are home to more than five times as many people.
Alberta’s hospitals are swamped. On July 1, there were 165 people in hospital; by Thursday, the number had hit 896, with 222 people in intensive care. On Thursday, Dr. Verna Yiu, the head of Alberta Health Services, said the government had begun contacting other provinces about accepting patients.
Part of the problem is a low vaccination rate. Just 71.5 per cent of Albertans 12 years and over have received both shots. That’s lower than every province except Canada’s other COVID-19 hotspot, Saskatchewan – which also reversed course this week and announced vaccine and mask mandates.
It’s the unvaccinated who are swamping Alberta’s hospitals. Among current COVID-19 patients, 73 per cent are unvaccinated, and another 5 per cent are partially vaccinated. The numbers are even more stark among the most seriously ill: Of 746 infected Albertans in the ICU over the past four months, just 30 were fully vaccinated.
In response to this self-inflicted crisis, Mr. Kenney on Wednesday announced a vaccine passport system that non-essential businesses must either use, or instead demand recent negative COVID-19 test results from their customers. Those that don’t will see their business curtailed; for instance, restaurants that don’t demand proof of vaccination or a negative test won’t be able to offer indoor dining.
Among other measures, Alberta is banning indoor private social gatherings for unvaccinated people, requiring all staff and students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks in school, and ordering people to work from home. This comes on top of recent measures such as the reinstatement of a mask mandate in public indoor spaces, a curfew on alcohol sales and the offer of $100 gift cards to people who get a jab.
It’s probably not enough. But at least it’s now clear that the Kenney government made a fatal error when it told people what they – and it – wanted to believe: that even Alberta’s relatively low level of vaccination was able to reduce COVID-19 to no more of a threat than the flu.
Ontario took another path. It’s also going through a pandemic of the unvaccinated – according to its latest data, 125 out of 138 people currently in an ICU are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
But Ontario’s fourth wave has, so far, been much smaller than Alberta’s. Ontario’s per capita infection rate was about eight times lower than Alberta’s on Tuesday, and the relative number of patients in the ICU is six times lower.
Why? In part because Ontario never relented on its mask mandate for indoor spaces, and it lifted other public-health measures slowly and to a more limited degree.
At the same time, to keep its vaccination rate rising, it announced a vaccine mandate more than two weeks ago, a move that helped spur an increase in the demand for jabs.
The upshot? While vaccines may be the biggest and most talked about part of what’s needed to get Canada into the post-pandemic era, they alone are not the cure – not until current vaccination rates go higher, and probably not until children under the age of 12 are eligible to be vaccinated.
The contrast between Alberta and Ontario proves that throwing away public-health measures, notably masks, is not yet an option.
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