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Alberta's plan to stop testing for COVID-19 poses risks for children, pediatricians say

The Alberta government's decision to eliminate COVID-19 testing has pediatricians extremely worried about the health of the province's children when they return to school in a few weeks.

Letter to premier urges delay until 85% of Albertans have been immunized

Students wait for classes to begin in Godley, Texas, in August 2020. Alberta pediatricians say they're worried the province's relaxed COVID-19 restrictions will put children at risk when they return to school. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

The Alberta government's decision to eliminate COVID-19 testing has pediatricians extremely worried about the health of the province's children when they return to school in a few weeks.

In a letter sent Monday to Premier Jason Kenney, the Alberta Medical Association's (AMA) Section of Pediatrics urges Kenney to delay the removal of monitoring measures until 85 per cent of Albertans have been immunized, or until the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the less volatile endemic stage.

"Over 1.5 million Albertans remain unvaccinated and over half a million children under 12 are still ineligible for the vaccine," says the letter, signed by 13 doctors representing the section's executive.

"As we near the start of the school year, a lack of mitigation and monitoring measures will result in a situation where the fourth wave will cause COVID-19 to spread quickly throughout unvaccinated populations and children."

According to Alberta government statistics, about 76 per cent of the eligible population — those over age 12 — have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, less than 65 per cent of the entire population including children have done so, which is a full 20 per cent less than the mark suggested by the doctors. 

Pediatricians worry delta will 'spread like wildfire'

As of Aug. 16, a swath of changes come into effect as the Alberta government backs away from the enforceable restrictions that have been in place for most of the pandemic. Among these, isolation following a positive test will be recommended but not required by law and testing will only be done as required for patient-care decisions. 

The doctors say in their letter to Kenney that these decisions, in combination with an end to mandatory masking and the contagious nature of the delta variant, will leave children at risk of COVID-19 complications. 

WATCH | Dr. Tehseen Ladha says the risk to children is unacceptable:

Pediatrician says Alberta's plan to drop COVID-19 measures comes 'much too soon'

4 months ago
1:05
Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, is among those medical professionals concerned by Alberta's plan to lift testing, tracing and isolation protocols just before the new school year begins. 1:05
The citizens are saying very loudly right now that this is not a change that we want. That we're OK with relaxing some restrictions. But eliminating all of these measures is much, much too soon.- Dr. Tehseen Ladha

"Our major concern is that by abandoning the test, tracing and isolation measures, as well as the elimination of the mask mandate which was done prior to that, and with a population of over half a million children in Alberta that aren't eligible for vaccination, we're going to see COVID-19 — the delta variant — spread like wildfire come fall through daycares and through schools," said Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta and co-signatory of the letter.

Ladha pointed to Florida and Louisiana, two states that abandoned protective measures and are now seeing rapid increases in pediatric hospitalizations.

"We know that [the delta variant is] as contagious as chickenpox and we know that children are going back to school soon," she told CBC News.

"And so we anticipate that all of these factors are going to collide in conjunction with the abandonment of the measures by the province."

Surge in fall expected, Kenney says

At an unrelated news conference Monday, Kenney said that he and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw expect that fall will bring a surge of COVID-19 cases, along with a rise in cases of influenza and common cold.

But he said the protection offered by having three-quarters of eligible Albertans fully or partially vaccinated is the "game changer."

"Kids … had a 140 times greater risk of an emergency department visit for a sports related injury in 2019 than their risk of COVID-related hospital admission since March of 2020," Kenney said, referring to statistics Hinshaw has previously shared. 

"We don't talk about shutting down kids sports because unfortunately some kids get injured and have to go to the emergency ward."

The AMA's pediatrics section represents more than 300 AMA members. Ladha said the group felt strongly that it needed to add its voice to those of the medical associations and citizens who have spoken out.

Last week, the Alberta College of Family Physicians said it was not consulted and had no prior knowledge about the province's new protocols on testing, isolation and contact tracing. The Canadian Paediatric Society has also raised concerns.

"Ultimately the job of the government is to represent its citizens," Ladha said. "And the citizens are saying very loudly right now that this is not a change that we want. That we're OK with relaxing some restrictions. But eliminating all of these measures is much, much too soon."

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