Have Albertans come to accept COVID's high death toll? Experts weigh in
There have been 131 COVID-related deaths in the last two weeks
Dozens of Albertans continue to lose their lives to COVID-19 every week and as these stories fade from political messaging, questions are being raised about whether the ever-growing pandemic death toll is becoming normalized.
In the last two weeks alone there have been 131 COVID-related deaths in the province. In all 4,452 Albertans have died.
"I know that the pandemic is still touching people's lives," said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, revealing the virus has left a tragic mark on his family.
"I lost my father-in-law just over two weeks ago from COVID."
Caulfield sees his father-in-law's death, along with so many others, as a stark reminder that the pandemic is not over.
"As a society we are kind of starting to normalize these numbers. And we're seeing that at the political level but I think we're seeing it at the population level. That is interesting. And I think we need to reflect on, is this really acceptable?"
According to Caulfield, surveys show many Canadians think it's time to move on. And while there are positive signs as some of Alberta's COVID-19 indicators are starting to decline, he argues it's not time to give up.
"People are just sick of the pandemic...They don't want to hear the word 'COVID' anymore. But you also have a political dimension here where politicians are recognizing that, perhaps fuelling that, and also want to move on, " he said.
"The combination of the two, I think, may create a complacency that isn't completely justified by the science or what's really going on in our hospitals."
'Hard to comprehend'
At the University of Calgary, Craig Jenne has also been watching the unrelenting deaths with trepidation.
"The number of deaths is still very concerning....We are unfortunately losing somewhere between eight and 10 Albertans every day. And that's really hard to comprehend," said Jenne, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.
To illustrate the high toll, Jenne compares COVID-19 deaths to that of influenza. During a particularly bad flu season, he said, Alberta would see between 120 and 130 influenza deaths.
"We're losing that many Albertans to COVID every two weeks," he said.
"Twice as many people are losing their lives every month to COVID than what we have seen even in an [entire] bad flu season. So this is still a very significant infectious disease."
According to Jenne, while virus levels, hospitalizations and deaths dropped dramatically between earlier pandemic waves, that pattern has changed, and the baseline levels now remain higher between surges.
"It does seem as a province that we have come to accept this. And it's very concerning given that some of these deaths are likely preventable," he said, noting full vaccination including booster doses continue to be effective in preventing severe disease.
"It's pretty clear across Alberta we are not embracing those protective measures perhaps as well as other provinces and as a result we are continuing to see loss of life here."
Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said in a news conference this week that cases and positivity rates are the first to drop as a wave recedes, followed by hospitalizations and finally, deaths.
"This is why these high numbers of deaths that we have seen in the past weeks, as well as this week, is not unexpected although it is a tragic reminder of the severe impacts of this virus," she said.
"This is a late indicator showing the impact of the BA.2 surge. As we're seeing positivity and hospitalizations begin to decline consistently we should expect to see the same thing in the number of deaths very soon."
While Hinshaw continues to acknowledge Alberta's COVID-19 deaths during her weekly updates, pandemic messaging both in Canada and around the world has shifted, according to Caulfield, from calling on people to work together for the greater good to a focus on individual responsibility.
And that, he argues, could have long-term consequences.
"At the same time, we're hearing these revisionist kind of stories about the impact of COVID and the value of these public health measures. What's an individual left to do? They're being told it wasn't a big deal. They're being asked to make individualized risk assessments. That's a recipe for complacency," he said.
"That's a recipe for not taking this seriously going forward. And I also think it's a recipe for making it more difficult in the future to implement public health measures if they're needed."