Ontario health experts are denouncing Alberta over its easing of COVID health measures, calling the return to normalcy a "cruel experiment."
The province’s plan to scrap mandatory masking and isolation drew criticism. However, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health urged residents to treat COVID-19 as a normal part of life or an endemic – similar to the common flu.
On Wednesday, Alberta announced a two-phase transition to safely monitor the impact of the initial changes, adapt as needed over the next few weeks, and give more time to vaccinate Albertans.
Effective July 29, isolation for anyone with COVID symptoms and for confirmed positive cases is still required. All positive cases will continue to be notified. However, contact tracers will no longer notify close contacts of exposure but will remain in high-risk settings such as acute and continuing care facilities.
Mandatory masking remains in acute and continuing care facilities, publicly accessible transit, taxis and ride-share.
Alberta officially stated that they would no longer make residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 quarantine as of August 16, though it remains highly recommended. Alberta Health would also stop routine testing for mild symptoms of the virus, except for high-risk situations where large groups of people convene.
Isolation hotels and quarantine support would no longer be available, and the remaining provisions of the provincial mask mandate would cease. COVID testing would remain as needed for high-risk outbreaks such as in continuing care facilities.
Some experts expressed their concerns with the relaxing of Alberta’s ongoing public health measures, with Dr. Andrew Boozary, Executive Director of Social Medicine and Population Health at the University Health Network in Toronto, calling the plan a "cruel experiment that is being imposed at a public policy level." He told City News that supporters of the move "are not in line with the science," as "[they] want to pander to [the] politicization of the pandemic."
Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said that while COVID-19 cases may arise in the coming months, a surge of hospitalizations and other severe outcomes is much less likely, thanks to vaccines.
"In the coming weeks, Alberta’s health system will take steps to make sure that it is ready to support all patients, including those with COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses, like influenza, which health officials expect to increase this year," he said, adding the province would bring COVID-19 quarantine, isolation, and other measures in line with those used for influenza and other viruses.
Testing for severe cases, provincial monitoring, outbreak management in high-risk settings, and other vital measures will remain in place. "Health officials would adapt as needed if hospitalizations due to COVID-19 spike in the future," said McMillan.
However, Boozary insisted this announcement was "one of the most egregious policy disconnects" he saw nationwide, adding it would not protect and save people’s lives.
City News reached out to Ontario’s Health Ministry on possible travel restrictions to Alberta and were met without response. On the matter, Boozary added: "This is a global pandemic. We need to ensure communication between provinces when it comes to travel decisions, so people and families can be fully informed to make those decisions. When we don’t see the coordination take place, it puts people more at risk."
Hinshaw affirmed that Alberta Health’s top priority is supporting the health of Albertans. "COVID-19 is still with us, but we are now in a place where we need to manage it through vaccinations and the proven public health measures used for other communicable viruses," she said. Hinshaw expects to see increased influenza and other virus case counts in the fall this year and that Thursday’s changes ensured "the health system is ready and able to support all Albertans in the months ahead."
Nearly 75.6 percent of eligible Albertans have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 64.3 percent are fully immunized. Vaccines dramatically reduced the risk of severe outcomes and the risk of infection, which one of the Ontario health experts interviewed agreed was a crucial indicator to beating COVID-19.
"If we have a low vaccine uptake in certain regions, we may see higher cases of [the] Delta variant," said Dr. Omar Khan, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto. He added that while children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated, they are still at risk of asymptomatic transmission.
Ontario Health recently announced that it is devising a vaccination plan for children aged five to 12 as the province waits for approval to vaccinate that age group. Their Chief Medical Officer of Health expects that to happen by late fall or early winter.