EDMONTON—After leading the charge in Canada to cast off the restrictions of COVID-19, Alberta says it is moving to lift more public health measures — even as the province grapples with growing case numbers that some fear show the province is moving in the wrong direction.
The province’s chief medical officer of health on Wednesday told her first news conference in more than a month that, come Aug. 16, masks will no longer be required in taxis or on transit in Alberta; that children won’t be required to wear masks in schools; and that there will no longer be a legally required isolation period should someone test positive for COVID-19.
“We have made incredible sacrifices (during the pandemic),” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said. “Today, we are in a very different place. Vaccines are able to drastically reduce the risk of not only contracting the virus, but more importantly, getting severely ill.”
It’s the latest move by a province that has, since Canada Day, allowed restaurants, bars and businesses to welcome as many maskless customers as they want — a decision that came just in time for the Calgary Stampede. So far, there have been 84 COVID-19 cases connected to the Stampede, which had more than 500,000 attendees.
Hinshaw said that Alberta has good vaccine coverage when compared with countries around the world.
However, Alberta lags behind most other provinces in Canada when it comes to first doses administered, with only 63 per cent of the total population having received a dose as of July 17. That compares to 71 per cent in neighbouring British Columbia, and 69 per cent in Ontario.
During the period from July 19 to July 25, Alberta had an R-value of 1.48, meaning that infections will continue to increase. Infectious disease experts say an R-value between 1.3 and 1.5 maintained over several days is a concerning trend and that the goal is to keep the value below 1.
The province is currently dealing with 1,173 active cases and has 82 people in hospital.
So, do those numbers suggest Alberta has moved too quickly to reopen? One expert says it’s simply too soon to say.
“Everyone wants to jump on Alberta and badmouth them,” said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, during an interview that took place Wednesday before Hinshaw’s announcement.
“I don’t know if you can do that, I really don’t. I’m trying to really approach this without value judgment.”
Growing case counts will be normal countrywide, even as vaccination rates continue to go up, as public health restrictions lift and the unvaccinated continue to become infected, said Bogoch.
“That’s a given,” he said. “It’s just, to what extent will that impact Canadian society? To what extent will that impact our health-care system?”
Bogoch pointed to the situation in the United Kingdom, which lifted restrictions quickly and experienced a rise in infections, even though it had a robust vaccination campaign. After that growth, cases began to go down again, he said.
Events such as the Stampede — to which Bogoch took his own kids this year — present little risk to the public since most of the festivities happen outdoors, he said.
“I’d like to think I know a thing or two about COVID-19 and how its transmitted,” said Bogoch.
“From a COVID-19 standpoint, it was totally fine.”
So how does the province grapple with ongoing transmission of the virus?
“Ultimately, these are now political decisions,” he said.
The science on how to limit infections is clear, he added, but politicians must weigh putting public health restrictions in place with potential impacts on the economy.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has taken flak from both the left and the right of the political spectrum for how he’s dealt with the pandemic — and he’s seen his popularity in polls tank throughout the crisis. Some say he put too many public health restrictions in place; others say he didn’t do enough.
Lori Williams, a policy studies professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says Kenney lifted restrictions more quickly than elsewhere in Canada partly because he wanted to be seen as a leader.
“What really I think is going to make the difference now is how Alberta compares to the rest of the country,” Williams said.
Should the province see a large amount of new cases and severity indicators such as hospitalizations go up, it could mean things get “more challenging” politically for the Alberta government.
“For whatever reason, or set of reasons, Jason Kenney decided to sort of roll the dice (in opening up) and it remains to be seen whether that’s going to help or hurt him,” Williams said.