Amid pushback, Alberta health minister defends plan to ease COVID-19 isolation, masking, testing rules

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says new public health changes show Alberta is leading the way in its pandemic response. However, a host of doctors and researchers say the moves are baffling, dangerous and irresponsible. Now there are calls for government to reverse course. Fletcher Kent has more.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro is defending the province’s plan to do away with most of its public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, as case numbers climb in Alberta.

“This is a plan that is based on the science and based on the data,” Shandro said during an unrelated news conference in Edmonton Thursday morning.

“We know that people will continue to have that anxiety but this was work that was done by public health based on the science, based on the data.”

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Effective Thursday, close contacts will no longer be notified of exposure by contact tracers nor will they be legally required to isolate – although it still recommended.

The province will also end asymptomatic testing.

Further measures will be eliminated Aug. 16. People who test positive for COVID-19 will not be mandated to isolate at that time but it is still strongly recommended. Isolation hotels will also close as quarantine supports end.

Also Aug. 16, provincial mandatory masking orders will be lifted. Some masking in acute care or continuing care facilities may still be required.

Effective Aug. 31, COVID-19 testing will no longer be available through assessment centres. It will be available in primary care settings including doctors’ offices or in acute care and hospital settings.

While the province could not point to another jurisdiction that is taking a similar approach, Shandro maintained this is the next step as the province moves from a pandemic to an endemic response, adding that Alberta is leading the way.

“The three stages of any pandemic begins with containment, then we move to mitigation and then it moves to the endemic response where we live with a virus in our community,” Shandro said.

“Other provinces know that this is going to be the inevitable next step in Canada for all provinces.

“We did know that this is — when we do move to an endemic response more clearly and (with) some of these measures, that some folks were going to have questions — but I think that’s why we’re trying to do it in a thoughtful way, in a staged approach based on really important metrics that were developed, that were based on the science and based on the data.”

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Shandro said the metrics were chosen by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the 16 people who work in her office. The health minister did not reveal what the metrics were, but pointed to 65 per cent of the eligible Alberta population being fully vaccinated as an example of one the measures that led to the further easing of restrictions.

“This isn’t the first pandemic that the world has responded to. This isn’t the first pandemic that we’ve seen in Alberta,” Shandro said.

“The folks — the 16 folks in Dr. Hinshaw’s office, as well as the MOHs (medical officers of health) throughout AHS — have an extraordinary amount of experience in public health and in response to other pandemics and when it comes to infectious disease.”

As of July 27, 75.6 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 64.3 per cent are fully immunized.

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Since July 1, people who were not immunized made up 95 per cent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, 92 per cent of those requiring hospital care and 95 per cent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the province.

“This shows that the pressures on the health system and our concerns about protecting lives are changing and moving to an endemic response,” Shandro said.

“We know that there will continue to be some transmission but the data shows that what the vaccines are doing is making it less infectious and less deadly and that’s the good thing that allows us to move to that endemic response.”

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Shandro stressed that anyone who is eligible and has not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine should book an appointment.

Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency room physician based in Calgary, said with new cases doubling every five days, now is not the time to be letting up.

“Right now, when everything that I know about COVID tells me we should be ringing the alarm bells and putting in much more powerful public health restrictions, the answer from the medical officer of health is that we are going to be the first jurisdiction in the world to pretend COVID has gone away,” he said.

Vipond said there is too much unknown with COVID-19 variants. With no data about what lifting these measures will do, he added it’s hard to say what will happen. He worries with testing changes, patients will end up in his emergency room and also worries that those under 12 who are not eligible to be vaccinated are being put at risk.

“I just want to do my job. I just want to love my kids. I don’t want to take this on, I don’t want to take on this government.

“I just want to be safe, right? That’s the only reason why I’ve ever fought is so that my kids are safe,” he said, getting emotional.

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Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician based in Edmonton, said he was not surprised by Wednesday’s announcement. He added there is a general feeling of shock amongst his colleagues at the hospital that the province is doing the wrong thing.

“If you look at what the game plan here is, it makes sense to do the wrong thing from a political perspective. Any other platform would admit that you got the whole thing wrong in the first place, which has really been the case,” Markland said.

“It’s kind of like heading towards a wall and stepping on the gas instead of the brake. This is a shift of responsibility to the individual. And it basically says, ‘If you haven’t been vaccinated, tough.'”

Markland added that dealing with the Delta variant is also a different ballgame.

“It even gets people who have been double vaccinated. And there are simple things that we can do to prevent the problem of spread amongst the vaccinated and that’s wear a mask,” he said.

“We’re not perfectly safe by vaccination. Yes, it will prevent bad outcomes, but you’re still going to spread it to vulnerable people or non-vaccine people. Mask mandates, all the things that we’ve been doing beforehand, are appropriate.”

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Markland added a safer approach is warranted until children under 12 can be vaccinated.

“I don’t like to sit around and talk about long COVID because we don’t have a lot of data, but I do know that the safe approach here would be to protect our children until vaccine trials come out in fall so that we don’t have to worry about the worst case scenario, which is permanent developmental brain injury, which we are seeing cases of.”

The changes were announced by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Wednesday afternoon as the province recorded 194 new cases of COVID-19 — the highest daily case count since early June.

There are now 1,334 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta.

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The latest reported R-value, or rate of infection, for Alberta was 1.48 for the week of July 19 to July 25. The rate was slightly higher in Calgary at 1.5 — one of the highest R-values seen in Alberta throughout the pandemic.

“COVID is not over… COVID will not be eliminated. We need to learn to live with it,” Hinshaw said Wednesday. “With the vaccine readily available, the need for the types of extraordinary restrictions we used in the past has diminished.

“We need to make sure that Alberta’s health system is able to support all patients. That is why we are making changes to bring COVID-19 measures in line with how we handle other respiratory viruses.”

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said she has serious questions about this approach as cases continue to rise again.

“It appears that rising hospital admissions will be our only concrete signal that things are getting out of control,” Notley said.

“We are going to be creating a situation where infectious people will be going into highly public places including potentially our hospitals, including our schools, including other places throughout our communities where people gather. It just makes no sense.”

She is calling for a reversal of the plan to lift mandatory isolation requirements for those who test positive, as well as the decision to no longer trace and notify close contacts of confirmed cases.

“If we are going to learn to live with COVID-19, Albertans still deserve to know where it is and if they’ve been exposed to it,” she said. “All we are asking is that the government keep doing the bare minimum. Track the virus. Tell people when they’re exposed.”

Notley said the province also needs to do more to encourage people to get vaccinated, including increased education efforts and targeted access.

“There’s lots still to be done to improve the vaccination levels around the province and I would want to see us get there before we start moving to these kinds of elimination of protocols altogether,” she said.

“This is too soon.”

There are currently 84 people in hospital with COVID-19, with 18 of those people being treated in intensive care.

With files from The Canadian Press and Emily Mertz, Global News.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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