Edmonton·Analysis

Is Alberta's newest plan to lift COVID restrictions another 'open for summer'?

Alberta lifted nearly all health restrictions last summer but the province experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall. In a few weeks, the government is going to lift restrictions again.

Some doctors, experts say it may be too early to drop public health rules

Tyler Shandro, then health minister, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

When Premier Jason Kenney announced last week that almost all COVID-19 restrictions will be coming to an end, it was a moment of déjà vu for many Albertans.

Last summer was supposed to be the best summer ever, as Kenney predicted in the spring of 2021.

But just months after lifting virtually all public health restrictions, Alberta was struck by the deadly fourth wave of COVID-19, driven by the Delta variant.

After a couple of sunny months free from restrictions, people were dying from COVID in numbers not seen since the second wave, and Albertans were told to wear masks and limit their gatherings.

As March approaches, Alberta's government is set to once again drop most of its COVID rules.

The province's version of a vaccine passport, introduced last fall as COVID once again pushed the limits of the province's health system, has already been scrapped.

Kenney admits the province didn't have enough vaccine coverage for the Delta wave.

Many more Albertans are now immunized, but the province still trails every other province when it comes to full vaccination.

Alberta's "open for summer" reopening required just 70 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and over to have had a first dose of vaccine, but today about 90 per cent of that demographic has had at least one dose, while 86.3 per cent have had two. Immunity from prior infection is also higher than ever before, given the widespread transmission of Omicron. 

New treatments are also available, including the antiviral treatment Paxlovid and monoclonal antibody treatment, and the province has worked to create additional health-care capacity. 

Alberta well positioned to learn to live with the virus, premier says

5 months ago
Duration 2:51
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the province's plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions does not mean that the illness is going away. As widespread vaccination reduces the risk of severe outcomes, the province is ready to start living with COVID and treating it like other illnesses.

But there are also far more people with COVID right now than there were last summer, even if current numbers of new cases and hospital admissions are dropping.

In late June and early July, the province's daily new cases were in the dozens, but even with limited access to PCR testing the province is now routinely reporting more than 1,300 cases a day. Actual case numbers are estimated to be many times higher because of the restricted access to PCR tests.

The number of people in hospital with COVID is also significantly higher than it was last summer, and not far from the province's pandemic peak. In the province's latest update Friday, there were 1,566 COVID-positive patients in hospital, not too far removed from the all-time high of 1,675 on Feb. 1.

At Tuesday's news conference, the premier's message was clear: it's time to start living with the virus. 

"The threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the hugely damaging impact of health restrictions on our society, on people's mental health, on their emotional wellbeing, on our broader social health," Kenney said.

"So now is the time to begin learning to live with COVID."

Alberta's premier isn't alone in that thinking.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam recently said it's clear that Canada and the rest of the world will be grappling with the virus for months or years to come. The country needs to find a more "sustainable" way to deal with COVID-19, Tam said.

Other provinces and countries have also come to the same conclusion. 

But is it the right time — and is the province is taking the right approach? Some experts don't think it is.

'3 weeks too early'

"It's about three weeks too early," said Jason Tetro, an expert in infectious diseases and author of The Germ Files.

Tetro noted that the province's leading indicators are all dropping. If the government waited a little longer, he said, it would be in a better position to remove restrictions.

"I would much rather wait that little bit of extra time, than go back and Groundhog Day what we did in the summer, when thought we were having the best summer ever and instead we all ended up getting locked up."

Tetro said Alberta is still undervaccinated, especially children, and the threat of the highly transmissible Omicron variant is still present. Those under five can't be vaccinated and only about 19.5 per cent of those in the five to 11 age group have had both doses. 

Tetro isn't alone. Some doctors and nurses on the front lines told CBC they also think it's too early to start lifting restrictions.

Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, a critical care specialist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, told CBC last week he's not opposed to the lifting of restrictions, though he was surprised at how quickly it happened.

"To some extent, it may be early, but at some point, things had to be lifted," Chowdhury said.

Will it work?

Whether or not the government's plan is successful may depend on who you ask. 

Since the virus won't be eliminated and new variants will continue to pop up, what are the measures of success?

Is it the number of deaths, the number of people in hospital, the ability to feel safe around other people, the economy, public opinion, or all of the above?

Alberta is one of many places hoping to move to an endemic response to COVID-19, but it might not be the type everyone agrees on. 

"If you are OK with a certain number of cases happening consistently, then you're OK with scientific endemic," said Tetro.

"But if you're OK with just simply pockets of areas that may have to go into lockdown, but that everyone else can just do whatever the heck they want, well, that's political endemic."

It's easy to compare last summer's reopening with the province's latest strategy. In many ways, both are rooted in the hope that vaccination can bring us back to normal.

If the lessons of the past can teach us anything, it's that no COVID policy can be set in stone. 

The virus will change and so will the approach.

While governments everywhere have been striving for a return to normal, so far, it hasn't happened. But that won't stop them from trying.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevor Howlett

Reporter/editor

Trevor Howlett is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. He previously reported in Nova Scotia, Fort McMurray and Red Deer. You can reach him at trevor.howlett@cbc.ca.

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