Federal health minister pens letter to Alberta, asks for science behind plan to lift COVID-19 rules

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has sent a letter to her Alberta counterpart saying she shares concerns about the province’s plan to lift all of its COVID-19 health restrictions.

In the letter, addressed to Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Hajdu says she agrees with the Canadian Paediatric Society’s description of the move as an “unnecessary and risky gamble.”

Shandro fired back on Thursday, accusing Hajdu of unfairly targeting Alberta for political gain.

“It’s beyond ironic that at the very time Min. Hajdu was sending her supposed letter of concern, her boss is preparing to crisscross the country for his opportunistic election,” said a statement from Shandro.

In Hajdu’s letter, which was sent on Sunday, she says recent modelling for Alberta forecasts a more serious resurgence in COVID-19 cases fuelled by the delta variant and that all governments need to take reasonable steps to protect Canadians.

“It is now incumbent on all governments across Canada to exercise caution and vigilance, to keep everyone safe in our jurisdictions and neighbouring ones as well,” she wrote.

Hajdu says she wants to better understand the science and rationale behind Alberta’s decision.

Last week, the province ended contact tracing and said close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 are not required to isolate. Starting Aug. 16, those infected will no longer need to quarantine.

Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney have said Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, came up with the plan to remove restrictions and has been clear about her reasoning. The government says the decisions are based on science and data.

WATCH | Alberta’s chief medical officer of health discusses plan to lift restrictions.

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw joins Power & Politics to discuss the province’s plan to roll back COVID-19 restrictions. 11:46

On CBC’s Power & Politics, Hinshaw said Alberta Health is working on releasing new modelling data that shows COVID-19 cases will likely rise but that the health system will not be overwhelmed.

Hinshaw has said Alberta must return its resources to other public health threats, such as dropping childhood immunization rates and syphilis.

Children first need to be vaccinated, says pediatrician

About 66 per cent of eligible Albertans have been fully vaccinated. Still unvaccinated are children under 12, which prompted the Canadian Paediatric Society to plead with Alberta to keep measures in place.

Dr. Raphael Sharon, the society’s Alberta director and an Edmonton pediatrician, says it is reasonable to ask the province to keep isolation requirements, mass testing and contact tracing in place until kids can be vaccinated.

“We’re close. But we’re not there yet, so it’s too early to take the foot off the gas,” he said.

While Hinshaw and the government have said sports injuries land many more children in emergency rooms than COVID-19, Sharon said that’s an unfair comparison. A child with a sports injury can’t infect her grandfather, he said.

When public testing is gone, Sharon said, he will have no way of knowing which children coughing and sneezing in his waiting room could be exposing other people to COVID-19.

The government plans to track COVID-19 trends with wastewater surveillance and testing at community clinics across the province.

Some of Hinshaw’s counterparts are taking a more cautious approach. On Thursday, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said it would be premature to begin managing COVID-19 as if it were any other respiratory disease.

The anxiety about Alberta’s pandemic shift has led to daily protests in Edmonton and Calgary since last week.

Emily Kent, the parent of a toddler and who works as a speech language pathologist, was among those protesting outside the provincial legislature on Thursday.

She said the province is abdicating its responsibility to protect vulnerable people from COVID-19.

“I’m thankful that there’s people in the federal government that are looking out for Albertans right now and that they are concerned, very concerned, with this type of experiment that’s going on,” Kent said.

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