Dr. Deena Hinshaw apologizes for 'confusion, fear or anger' caused by new COVID-19 plan announcement

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's top health official is apologizing for causing "confusion, fear or anger" after communicating the province's plan to lift its remaining COVID-19 public health measures.

Move to drop most pandemic measures in Alberta has faced fierce criticism

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, says she's sorry for how she communicated the province's plan to largely stop contact tracing, testing and isolation requirements for COVID-19. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's chief medical officer of health is apologizing for causing "confusion, fear or anger" after communicating the province's plan to lift its remaining COVID-19 public health measures.

In a column sent to various media outlets Wednesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw says her words have caused some people to think she believes COVID-19 is over.

Hinshaw says that wasn't her intended message.

She said in the column that lifting precautions, including isolation requirements, asymptomatic testing and contact tracing will support the whole health of Albertans by allowing the province to focus on other health threats, opioid deaths and syphilis.

Other 'wicked' problems

Isolation measures were incredibly disruptive, she said, and are no longer necessary thanks to vaccine protection.

Hinshaw also noted the threat to children's health, especially those under 12 who are not eligible to get vaccinated, is low and should be considered among a range of other risks.

"COVID-19 is a wicked problem; experts don't always agree on the exact nature of the problem, much less the best approach. But it is not the only wicked problem we are facing together," she wrote.

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"In addressing these complex issues, we are best served by trying to understand each other's perspectives, engaging in respectful dialogue and continuing to assess our approach."

Close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 are no longer being notified by contact tracers, nor are they required to isolate. Starting Aug. 16, infected individuals will no longer be legally required to isolate either.

Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro have said lifting the restrictions was Hinshaw's idea and they agreed with her plan. But the move has come under fire from medical experts across the country.

Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor in Calgary and co-founder of advocacy group Masks4Canada, called Hinshaw's column a "non-apology."

"She's apologizing for the way it was communicated, not for the content of the policy. And there are still serious concerns about the policy," Vipond told CBC News.

Most Albertans want this to be over, but that's not the reality.- Dr. Joe Vipond

Vipond said some of Hinshaw's arguments can easily be picked apart, like her point that dropping COVID-19 measures allows the province to better focus on other health concerns. 

"If we let things go, we are going to be dealing with exponential COVID and a big, bad flu season. But if we put in simple measures like mandatory masking, we can actually keep both at bay," he said. 

Vipond said Albertans deserve data to help them make informed decisions about their own risk. 

"It just seems very clear that our chief medical officer of health wants this to be over and wants to pretend that there's nothing more that needs to be done," Vipond said. 

"I would concur that most Albertans want this to be over, but that's not the reality. We're well into the fourth wave. And unless we put some mitigation measures on this exponential growth, we're in for a world of hurt."

Alberta's active case numbers, R-value and positivity rate have grown dramatically in recent days, and experts say the virus is now spreading faster in the province than during its third wave. 

Dr. Quentin Durand-Moreau, a specialist in occupational medicine at the University of Alberta, said Hinshaw's comments about "fear" aren't an appropriate way to deal with scientific disagreement.

"When you disagree, you are not saying that the other is anxious. You address the disagreement. You provide references to explain why you think that this is the right way to go," Durand-Moreau said. 

Physicians ask for evidence

In an open letter earlier Wednesday, a group of 10 physicians from the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association said Alberta is going against the advice from Health Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

The letter also draws attention to threats posed by the COVID-19 delta variant and the potential for pediatric and adult intensive care units to become overwhelmed should Alberta continue with its approach.

The group asks the province to review existing data and provide sound evidence before weakening COVID-19 control measures.

"We are concerned with the rapid speed of these changes and that you have provided no scientific data to Albertans to justify these unprecedented actions," read the letter.

"There are repetitive waves of COVID-19 variants moving around the world and we have not yet reached a safe state with a constant low level of virus in our community."

Although it is rare for children to become seriously ill with COVID-19, the association said they are at risk of becoming critically ill from Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome weeks after what initially appears to be a mild COVID infection.

Dr. Noel Gibney, an Edmonton-based critical care physician, signed the letter. He said it's the Alberta government's nature to take risks but its recent move is inconceivable.

"Alberta does not have its population well vaccinated despite what they say," said Gibney, noting only 56 per cent of Alberta's total population is vaccinated. That leaves about two million people without full protection.

He said Alberta could have "squeaked by" if it were only battling COVID-19 and its less transmissible variants, but noted delta is a different beast.

"It is a remarkably efficient pathogen."

With files from Malika Karim, Sarah Rieger and Elise von Scheel