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U of A public health experts call Alberta plan to phase out all COVID-19 restrictions 'reckless'

Faculty from the University of Alberta School of Public Health are voicing strong opposition to what they call the rapid relaxation of COVID-19 health measures in the province, saying it could prolong the pandemic.

Letter from faculty members calls for vaccine mandates be expanded to third doses

The letter says the province's plan is "reckless," considering waning immunity after two vaccine doses, slow uptake for third doses and lagging vaccination of Alberta children. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Faculty members from the University of Alberta School of Public Health, saying it could prolong the pandemic, are voicing strong opposition to what they call the rapid relaxation of COVID-19 health measures in the province.

In an open letter sent to Premier Jason Kenney and top-ranking United Conservative officials, about 25 experts with varied experience in public health, infectious diseases and social epidemiology say the government is using selective data to support its policies.

"We know and agree that restrictions have had deleterious effects on our society. However, this extreme back and forth of on-again, off-again restrictions only serves to prolong the course of this pandemic," the letter reads.

"We cannot tell what the future will hold, but the history of other pandemics, our immediate experience with Omicron and the fourth wave, and the wealth of evidence should teach us that a cautious, slow easing of restrictions would be the prudent way to proceed."

Premier Jason Kenney announced earlier this week a phased, but speedy approach to dropping all pandemic health measures. Kenney said the threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the damaging impact of restrictions.

Alberta's vaccine passport is already a thing of the past and masking requirements for children 12 and under, as well as for all students, are to end Monday. Most remaining measures are to be lifted in March should pressure on hospitals continue to ease.

'Distorted view'

Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Jason Copping, said the letter released Friday gives a "distorted view" by ignoring that other jurisdictions in Canada are taking similar approaches.

"Restrictions take a heavy toll on society, from workers earning modest wages in service businesses to students who have seen their education compromised by the change to online classes. The letter takes an unbalanced view, with almost no acknowledgment of that impact," said Buick in a statement.

"The letter calls for restrictions to continue but distorts the basis for them. The justification for restrictions is to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed. That has not happened."

COVID-19 hospitalizations decreased by 20 to 1,566 Thursday with no significant changes to intensive care admissions. The seven-day average positivity rate was about 32 per cent.

The letter says the province's plan is reckless when waning immunity after two vaccine doses, slow uptake for booster shots and lagging vaccination of children are considered.

It says it's time to expand vaccine mandates to include third doses, rather than ditch them altogether. The group also expresses concerns that the government is removing the freedom of municipalities, post-secondary institutions and school boards to make their own decisions.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told school boards Tuesday that they will not be able to bring in their own mask mandates. Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides similarly informed post-secondary schools that he expects them to return to pre-pandemic rules when more measures are expected to be lifted March 1.

That phase would see an end to keeping students in cohorts at schools, capacity limits and the indoor mask mandate.

Letter co-author Dr. Simon Otto, who specializes in epidemiology and infectious diseases, said in an interview that he is concerned government decisions are being driven by politics rather than all available evidence-based data.

"We speak from a position of expertise," he said. "We're training the next generation of public health professionals and we train them to think in this way, so we really feel it's important for the government to hear from us."

Otto said the government should release the data it is using to guide its decision-making and be more transparent with the public about crafting COVID-19 policies.

"Ignoring the evidence and dismissing the concerns and fears of parents, students and educators is a dangerous and irresponsible overstep by the government," the letter says.

"Now is absolutely not the time to make these drastic changes."

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