Plans to lift COVID-19 restrictions cause concern for medically fragile Albertans

From health-care workers to families of high-risk Albertans, the provincial government's plan to start lifting public health restrictions — and soon— is being met with fear and trepidation.

Premier says news on plans to ease public health measures coming within days

Corina Heppner's five-year-old son, Rossy, has complex medical issues that leave him at high risk of severe illness with COVID-19. (Corina Heppner)

From health-care workers to families of high-risk Albertans, the provincial government's plan to start lifting public health restrictions — and soon— is being met with fear and trepidation.

Premier Jason Kenney said this week he expects to begin easing COVID-19 measures, including the restrictions exemption program, before the end of the month. On Wednesday, the sense of urgency ramped up when he tweeted "the end of COVID-restrictions is near" and information would be announced within days.

The news comes in the midst of ongoing truck blockades and protests at the Coutts border crossing and as he faces increasing pressure from within his own party to end the restrictions.

But it also comes at a time when hospitalizations, while showing early signs of dropping, are still higher than during any previous wave.

"I am heartbroken," said Corina Heppner, a mother of three living in Calmar, Alta.

Her son Rossy, 5, has complex medical issues, including a condition that left him unable to use his arms and severe scoliosis that left him with just one properly developed lung.

His risk of getting very sick from COVID is high despite being vaccinated, according to his mother.

"My biggest, biggest fear is … he will not survive," said Heppner.

Measures including the restrictions exemption program allowed her family to feel a bit safer and to get out into the community.

The prospect of losing that layer of protection terrifies her.

Corina Heppner says if the Alberta government eases public health measures, including the vaccine passport system, she plans to take all her children out of school and limit their community interaction in an effort to protect her youngest. (Corina Heppner)

"It's hard to make people understand that this could potentially impact so many people in such a negative way when even our government is saying 'Oh well.'"

If the vaccine passport system is axed, she plans to pull all her children from school and keep her family at home as much as possible to protect her youngest.

"If we do keep him home and lock him away, what kind of a life is that? He already has so many things to overcome and he already misses out on so much," she said.

"Our lives matter, too."

'No less valuable'

Advocates for Albertans with developmental disabilities are also anxious about the prospect of easing restrictions.

"People with developmental disabilities live with heightened vulnerability for sure and often do have underlying health conditions that will make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and severe outcomes," said Trish Bowman, CEO of Inclusion Alberta.

Bowman said many Albertans with developmental disabilities — who are already living restrictive lives in an effort to stay safe — may end up even more isolated.

"People with disabilities, with underlying health conditions, are no less valuable, and they're no less important. And we should be making every effort we can to protect them," said Bowman.

She'd rather see lower community transmission as well as lower hospitalization numbers before the government moves to lift restrictions. Even then, she's calling for a measured approach.

Dr. Tania Pannu works on a COVID-19 unit at Calgary's Peter Lougheed Centre. She says she understands people are frustrated with public health restrictions but worries it's too early to start lifting them. (Submitted by Tania Pannu)

Hospitals still full

At the Peter Lougheed Centre in northeast Calgary, Dr Tania Pannu said the COVID unit where she works is full and staff are stretched.

"Coming to hospital feels like going to battle," said the internal medicine specialist.

"Staff are getting sick. We're covering for each other as colleagues until the swab comes back. Nurses are being asked to cover overtime and stay later, and the morale seems to be at an all time low. So while the sickness, the severity, the numbers of patients are increasing, at the same time we're seeing that our staff really feel the impact of this."

COVID hospitalizations in the province are still higher than during any other wave. And while those numbers dipped slightly Thursday, Pannu said they're not out of the woods.

"It does make us nervous that we're still at the peak and we're thinking about lifting restrictions."

Pannu said she understands people are tired of public health measures but she worries moving now would be premature and could risk yet another surge of very sick Albertans.

"We're incredibly nervous as to whether that means increased hospitalizations due to increased transmission."

During Thursday's COVID update, Alberta's chief medical officer of health said hospitals are still under pressure and need protection but that restrictions could be lifted in the future.

"I would urge all Albertans because of the strain our health-care system is under to continue making decisions that protect the health-care system and protect our communities," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who deflected questions about the timing.

"Policy decisions, again, are made by those who are elected."


Jennifer Lee


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.