Calgary

Trepidation in Alberta as omicron arrives, province ponders easing gathering restrictions

There is a feeling of unease among many Alberta doctors as the provincial government publicly muses about easing restrictions on gatherings ahead of the holidays at the same time as it works furiously to keep the new omicron variant contained.

3 cases of omicron have now been identified in Alberta

A staff member works in an intensive care unit at an Alberta hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Premier Jason Kenney says he's considering moderate easing of gathering restrictions if pressure on Alberta's ICUs continues to drop. (AHS)

There is a feeling of unease among many Alberta doctors as the provincial government publicly muses about easing restrictions on gatherings ahead of the holidays at the same time as it works furiously to keep the new omicron variant contained.

Three cases of omicron — which has shown signs of increased transmissibility and was officially declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organization last week — have now been identified in Alberta.

Two of them are in returning international travellers and one in a household contact. The province announced it had discovered its first case of the new variant on Tuesday, earlier saying it was just a matter of time before it arrived in Alberta.

Premier Jason Kenney said during Monday's COVID-19 update that he was considering a "modest relaxation" of gathering limits prior to Christmas if pressure on the province's intensive care units continued to drop and there was no alarming evidence of severe outcomes from omicron.

When asked about it Tuesday as she announced the discovery of omicron, Alberta's chief medical officer of health said she believes now is not the time to lift gathering limits entirely, but easing them in some way is under consideration.

"Whether or not there's an easing, I don't think this is the time to turn them all off. So its a matter of perhaps allowing an increase in numbers," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

At a news conference on Wednesday morning Kenney said, while easing restrictions is still under consideration, he wants to watch how omicron plays out and will maintain existing policies "for the time being."

Cautious approach

"This is a variant we're going to have to be very, very cautious with," said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's former chief medical officer of health and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta.

He's worried about the emergence of omicron at a time when Alberta still has a positivity rate of nearly five per cent, which he says indicates the contact tracing system isn't working as well as it should.

"That is not ideal if you have a new virus coming in," he said.

"The last time this government turned its back on a new variant, we ended up with 920 Albertans dying." 

The Alberta government was widely criticized for lifting virtually all public health restrictions for the summer, for taking further steps to dismantle much of the surveillance, isolation and testing systems, and not acting quickly enough to curb the fourth wave.

Hinshaw later admitted these were mistakes and led to Alberta's catastrophic fourth wave.

"They basically have no credibility," said Talbot.

Temporarily increasing the indoor gathering limit from two families to perhaps three for Christmas might be permissible, he said, but he doesn't trust the Kenney government.

"I would not like to see this government continue with its pattern of irresponsible relaxation of controls just before a season in which people are guaranteed to want to get together."

Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's former chief medical officer of health, says the Kenney government needs to proceed with caution as it considers easing gathering restrictions ahead of the holidays. (CBC)

'Recipe for disaster'

At Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre, respirologist Dr. Alain Tremblay is keeping a close eye on Alberta's COVID-19 trends.

He and his colleagues witnessed first-hand the devastation levelled by Alberta's fourth wave and are desperately hoping to avoid a fifth wave.

"We're kind of plateauing at a fairly high level. We're not down to 20 cases a day. We're still at 300 [cases] a day, 400 a day, sometimes 200," said Tremblay  who is also a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

"The car's still idling. We haven't shut it down yet. It leaves us open to a flare-up fairly easily if something changes."

Tremblay, like Talbot, is urging the province to take a more cautious approach this time.

"I hope Mr. Kenney won't repeat the Stampede mistake with Christmas. Obviously there is a lot of incentive to loosen things before Christmas … but the risk is there if we do it too quickly," he said.

"If omicron is yet more contagious and spreadable than delta was, then it's a bit of a recipe for disaster."

Moving ahead

The focus of the province right now, according to Talbot, should be on keeping both delta and omicron under control, expanding eligibility for third booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and getting as many children between the ages of five and 11 immunized with a first dose ahead of the holidays.

Health Minister Jason Copping announced Wednesday the province is expanding eligibility for third doses to all Albertans 18 and over.

The rollout will be done in stages. People 60 and over can start booking their boosters on Thursday and appointments will begin on Monday.

Booster doses for additional age groups will phased in as supplies last, and Copping expects appointments for all age groups 18 years and over should start early in the new year.

Hinshaw said as discussions around easing gathering restrictions occur, other protective measures such as third doses will be key.

"We need to look at a balance. We need to minimize the direct harms from COVID. We also need to minimize the harms of the restrictions," she said.

"There is still a risk that we could see widening spread and impacts on our health-care system."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Lee

Reporter

Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know. Jennifer.Lee@cbc.ca

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