Public health officials across Canada say they’ll be closely watching Alberta’s move to end COVID-19 public health measures — but many suggest they’ll be proceeding more cautiously.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health (CMOH), announced in late July that despite increasing case numbers the province will end isolation requirements, asymptomatic testing and contact tracing by mid-August.
She’s since apologized for causing “confusion, fear or anger” in communicating the plan but hasn’t backed down, despite concerns raised by the Canadian Pediatric Association, Alberta Medical Association, Alberta College of Family Physicians and the federal health minister.
“In speaking to other colleagues who are contemplating their forward planning, everybody is aware that the current approach is not sustainable. The question is at what time point do we make a shift into living with COVID?” Hinshaw said as she announced easing measures.
CBC News has contacted all provincial or territorial public health leaders across Canada but most did not directly respond to Hinshaw’s statement — or answer whether they felt current approaches to COVID-19 are sustainable. Some, like Quebec, declined to respond.
Nova Scotia CMOH Dr. Robert Strang said Alberta’s approach is premature.
“The science is pretty clear that it is premature to say the pandemic is over and we can treat COVID exactly the same as any other respiratory virus,” Strang said during a news conference on Thursday.
Strang elaborated in an emailed statement, saying that Nova Scotia is in the process of transitioning from a pandemic response to one where SARS-CoV-2 is one of several endemic respiratory viruses, and that surveillance, testing and contact tracing are being modified to be more sustainable going forward.
But, he said the potential of a delta variant-driven fourth wave makes it too early to remove measures entirely or to treat COVID-19 just like the seasonal flu.
Learning from Alberta’s experience
Newfoundland and Labrador CMOH Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said in a Tuesday press conference that Alberta’s decision didn’t come as a surprise, as doctors and other public health experts continue to mull how to transition from pandemic to endemic.
But she said Newfoundland won’t be ready to make a similar move until more people are vaccinated.
As of July 31, 77.28 per cent of all people in Newfoundland had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 65.93 per cent of Albertans.
“Not everyone has done everything exactly the same and I think we have to respect other province and territories’ decisions,” Fitzgerald said.
“We’ll probably be able to learn from Alberta’s experience in this regard.”
‘Cheering for Albertans’
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said in a news conference the province is also moving toward a post-pandemic future — one where some level of risk assessment will fall to individuals.
The comments came as Manitoba loosened restrictions like gathering limits and mask mandates — measures that were lifted in Alberta on July 1. Manitoba is experiencing declining COVID-19 case numbers and test positivity rates, but the province is continuing to uphold isolation requirements, testing and contact tracing.
“We’re — all of us, I hope — cheering for Albertans too. But it is duly noted that not every jurisdiction has got the same epidemiology,” Roussin said.
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Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, also indicated that he could only speak for what his region’s COVID-19 modelling has shown.
Nunavut is one of only two regions in Canada, alongside Saskatchewan, with a lower percentage of people covered by a first dose of vaccine than Alberta.
“Due to the greater risk of exponential spread and growth, we anticipate that, for Nunavut, this transition can only be done safely if it is accomplished with a series of gradual changes,” Patterson said in an emailed statement.
Hinshaw has said Alberta is working to release its modelling, which she said shows COVID-19 cases will increase but that the health system will not be overwhelmed.
Ontario CMOH Dr. Kieran Moore told media on Tuesday that he’s watching increasing case rates in places like Alberta, and hoping the province can learn from it and other regions.
He said simple measures like wearing masks in public places are proven to slow spread.
“That’s why we’re not taking [those measures] away and putting them back. We’re just going to keep them because we all want to return to a new normal and not have a rise in the threat of this virus.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry said British Columbia will continue to welcome travellers from Alberta, as long as they abide by the province’s stronger COVID-19 restrictions. The Okanagan region is experiencing surging cases; restrictions in the area are being increased and travellers to that area are being urged to reschedule.
“We’re happy to have you come, fully vaccinated. And when you’re here, we’re expecting that everybody continues to take the measures that we’re taking in British Columbia,” B.C.’s CMOH said in a press conference.
Saskatchewan has also ended most public health measures but has issued mixed messaging about its guidance for self-isolation — which is no longer a legal requirement. Saskatchewan’s CMOH did not respond to a request for comment.
Speaking at a news conference held in late July, Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy public health officer, said provinces may need to consider taking steps to protect their own residents as rules change in different jurisdictions.
“I think everyone is alive to the fact that there could be … knock on effects to the other provinces and territories. With travel within Canada, you know, with residents of one province going to another province. Obviously, in this case, we’re looking at Alberta,” he said.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has continued to urge the importance of isolation for those who are symptomatic, have tested positive or are close contacts of a confirmed case.
She said in a statement that each province and territory will continue to make plans according to its local circumstances and that Canada’s public health agency will continue to support jurisdictions by sharing the latest data and research.
Alberta now has 2,719 active cases of COVID-19, a number that has increased by nearly 340 per cent in one month.