The Current

Alberta doctors are calling for a 'circuit breaker' lockdown. Here's what that would mean

As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, some Alberta doctors are calling for a two-week "circuit breaker" to help control the virus. But some say the short-term lockdown won't do enough to stem the spread.

Some Alberta doctors calling for short lockdown, but others say it's not enough

A group of doctors in Alberta is calling on the government to implement a 'circuit breaker' lockdown to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in the province. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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As Alberta doctors call for a short, sharp "circuit breaker" lockdown to prevent the province's health-care system from being overwhelmed, one epidemiologist says it may not be enough to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"I think a circuit breaker is a compromise between doing nothing and doing what you need to do," Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"What you need to do, probably, is a ... long-term suppression strategy followed by mitigation, rather than the short-term break in the system, leading to a rise in the cases when you lift these efforts."

The number of COVID-19 cases in Canada continues to increase dramatically. On Tuesday, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan set new records for COVID-19 hospitalizations as health officials warn about the pressure that surging case numbers are putting on the health-care system.

To stem the spread of the coronavirus, a group of doctors from across Alberta is calling on the province to implement a "circuit breaker" lockdown.

"A circuit breaker lockdown is a short, brief period of time with a defined timeline where we ... close non-essential services in order to attempt to reset the system and give the hospital and contact tracers a chance to catch up as this second wave of the pandemic spikes," said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton.

She said hospitals in the province are about two weeks away from being overwhelmed and a circuit breaker lockdown is the answer.

Long-term strategy needed, says epidemiologist

However, Deonandan said a "circuit breaker" is a short-term approach, and we need to have a national conversation about long-term strategies to combat the pandemic.

He pointed to a COVID-19 eradication strategy, as we've seen in New Zealand, or what he called a "long-term suppression mitigation strategy in East Asia" as other approaches Canada needs to consider.

"Public health is the art of the possible and the public determines what is possible," he said.

But a strategy to eradicate the spread of the virus in Canada would likely require immense public buy-in.

A man in a mask crosses a street in Vancouver's Gastown neighbourhood. B.C. health officials mandated new lockdown measures on Saturday for residents of Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authority regions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A short lockdown would be more likely to garner public support, suggests Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

"You'll get more public buy-in at this stage of the pandemic if we do this for a short period of time, monitor closely and then re-evaluate," she said.

On Saturday, health officials in British Columbia announced strict new restrictions in Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions to try to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The new orders focus on social gatherings, travel, indoor group exercises and workplaces.

Daly said short-term lockdowns are a good balance between opening society and protecting public health.

"For some populations, the impact of the lockdown itself would be actually more harmful to their health than the virus," she explained.

"It's not about driving the number of cases down as low as possible. It's about flattening the curve and maintaining access to the health-care system so we don't overwhelm our hospitals and our intensive care units."

She said this is a virus we need to learn to live with in our society and protect our most vulnerable populations from.

"This is an established virus in our population," she said. "Even with the vaccine, the virus is not likely to disappear."

Written by Lito Howse, with files from CBC News. Produced by Julie Chrysler and Lindsay Rempel.