Alberta doctors renew call for circuit-breaker lockdown amid surge in variant cases
Medical groups say targeted restrictions won't be enough to flatten the curve
A group of Alberta doctors say the province must enforce a circuit-breaker style lockdown of the economy or risk a rising death toll and dangerous strain on frontline health care during the third wave of COVID-19.
The Calgary and Area Medical Staff Society and the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association called for a shutdown during a joint news conference Wednesday, hours after the province announced it would reinstate stricter public health measures.
The groups want the province to immediately introduce sweeping prohibitions, including stay-at-home orders and a prolonged closure of non-essential businesses, provincial classrooms and places of worship.
The medical groups say targeted restrictions won't bend the curve as highly contagious variants of the virus continue to spread.
"We have to move to society-wide kinds of measures if we're ever going to get the numbers back down," said Dr. James Talbot, co-chair of the COVID-19 committee with the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association.
The doctors are also calling for stronger enforcement of public-health restrictions and expedited vaccinations, especially for any frontline health-care providers who are still waiting to be immunized.
Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday that "layering on more stringent rules" is not the solution and he has no interest in adopting a "hard lockdown."
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This is not the first time physicians have called for a lockdown.
On Nov. 11, 2020, group of 70 physicians called on the Alberta government to impose an immediate two-week emergency lockdown. At the time, there were 192 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 39 in ICU.
More than 430 physicians and three major health-care unions joined the call the next day, when Kenney announced new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.
In early December, as case numbers continued to rise, the province announced further restrictions, closing all casinos and gyms, banning dine-in service and imposing a mandatory mask requirement.
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Alberta's COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to rise and finally peaked on Dec. 30, with 943 people in hospital, including 155 in intensive care.
By the end of January, numbers had begun to decline, with around 600 Albertans in hospitals.
Some restrictions reinstated
Dr. Shazma Mithani said variants are already putting added strain on frontline health care.
"What we're recommending today is an immediate lockdown or circuit-breaker and essentially a stay-at-home order, as Ontario is going to implement today," said Mithani, an assistant clinical professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Alberta and an emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra and Stollery Children's Hospitals.
"We are asking that people only leave their homes for essential services. They only have contact with members of their own household or their cohorts."
Alberta announced a return to tougher restrictions on Tuesday. The province will close indoor dining, curb indoor fitness and reduce retail capacity — measures Kenney described as difficult but necessary to effectively clamp down on the virus.
During an interview on CBC Radio on Wednesday, Kenney said the targeted restrictions are tough enough to slow the current surge in cases and buy Alberta time to escalate its vaccination program.
"We just have a few more weeks to get through this," he said. "If we just stick to the basics here, especially avoiding indoor socializing, we should be able to get through this as we build up immunity through the vaccine program."
Kenney said he expected resistance to the restrictions on all sides but insisted his government is trying to strike the right balance.
"There's going to be critics, some who want hard lockdowns, some who want no restrictions," he said.
"I think the vast majority of people know that we're trying to find a safe middle ground to control transmission so that we don't overwhelm the health-care system, so that we can prevent large scale, avoidable deaths while minimizing the negative impact to our broader society."
Dr. Malgorzata Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist at the University of Calgary, said the new restrictions will slow the rise of cases but won't stop it.
"The variant curve, it will still grow," she said. "To really substantially and quickly bend the curve and reduce the daily new cases, we would need some restrictions of the strength of New Zealand and Australia; basically a full financially supported lockdown."
She said cases related to the more contagious variants are doubling every week, while during the second wave cases grew at less than half that rate.
Gasperowicz said it would take a shutdown similar to the one in Alberta last spring to start bending the curve downward.
The shutdown would need to be in place for at least 10 days to bend the curve, and 10 to 12 weeks to reduce the caseload to zero, she said.
A third wave
The Easter long weekend saw an average of about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in the province. There were 931 new infections reported on Tuesday.
About 43 per cent of Alberta's 10,000 active cases were linked to variants of the coronavirus.
There were 328 people in hospital with the illness, including 76 in intensive care. The positivity rate was nearly 10 per cent.
Kenney said on Tuesday the province is on track to have 2,000 new infections a day and 1,000 people in hospital with COVID-19 by the end of April.
During the second wave, new daily cases peaked in December 4 at 1,875 and after that began to decline.
Dr. Craig Jenne, an assistant professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at University of Calgary, said Alberta is leading the country in active cases and variant cases per capita.
"Other provinces have moved much quicker and much more restrictive, with fewer infectious individuals in the community," he said.
Jenne said the positivity rate and number of hospitalizations remains an urgent concern for health-care providers who have already faced the exacting toll during more than a year of pandemic.
"We are once again facing this critical health burden," he said. "This is a pressing problem here that has to be immediately addressed."