Medical experts in Ontario are sounding the alarm over Alberta’s recent decision to dramatically ease COVID-19 restrictions, warning that the move could cause ripple effects across the country — and the world.
“The thing about this pandemic is that it’s global and that means we’re all interconnected,” said Dr. Andrew Buzzari, executive director of social medicine at University Health Network.
“For policy makers to bury their heads away from evidence and science… this is certainly concerning.”
Despite the recent surge in infections in Alberta, Dr. Dina Henshaw, the province’s chief medical officer for health, announced a two-phase approach Wednesday to eliminate the province’s few remaining public health orders.
As of Thursday, close contacts no longer need to be notified of exposure through contact tracing tools and will not be legally required to isolate, although it is still recommended.
Further actions will be canceled on August 16. People who have tested positive for the virus will not be mandated to isolate at that time. Isolated hotels will also close as the quarantine ends.
Alberta will instead start adjusting its COVID-19 protocols to be more in line with those of influenza or other infectious diseases.
“With a vaccine readily available, the need for the kinds of unusual restrictions we used in the past has diminished,” Henshaw said.
But Bozari says there needs to be coordination between provinces to ensure there are no “real disasters” across Canada.
“This will certainly have a multiplier effect and certainly affect all of us,” he said.
“We haven’t gotten there yet.”
The change comes as Alberta is reporting some of the highest COVID-19 case statistics the province has seen in weeks. The infection rate also continued to rise to points not seen throughout the pandemic.
The province says 54.7 percent of Albertans have now been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 64.3 percent have now received at least one dose.
While infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Shagla says the move is likely to be a preview of what other provinces will eventually adopt, he says the decision came “prematurely”.
“We are not there yet,” he said.
“There is still a quarter of this population where adults are still completely susceptible to the delta variant who have not been vaccinated.”
A concern highlighted several recent cases, including in Israel and the United Kingdom, where the delta variant found its way into non-immunized populations after restrictions were relaxed. In the US, Missouri and Florida are among the hardest hit by the summer boom with the average number of new cases in the US now averaging more than 60,000 per day.
“This will put pressure on the health care system…it will certainly have implications for patient care,” he said.
“If you remove the last tool to make sure healthcare use isn’t overburdened, you’ll see healthcare use overwhelmed.”
Criticism escalated on social media
Other medical experts agree, on Twitter to criticize the move.
So let me get this: Alberta is removing masking rules and no longer requiring people who have tested positive #covid19 Quarantine…but the virus is now spreading faster than it was at the height of the third wave??? 🤯🤯🤯 #COVID19AB
Very surprised to see the advertisement from Alberta today. We are one country and our destinies are linked. Let’s hope elected public health leaders from elsewhere can convince Alberta otherwise.
The county where I was born, where I learned to skate, and overcame the goalkeeper’s low side, made me a doctor… I gave up science, and public safety for the sake of desperate politics. I’m literally sick. https://t.co/AKxKpbTP1U
Buzzari says there are a combination of factors pointing to Alberta’s latest move — including the fact that schools have reopened in just over a month — and the province appears to have fallen into the “wrong choice of public health versus the economy.”
“Politicism is very dangerous [and] It’s going to really hold us back that last mile.”
Buzari added that more transparency is needed about the thresholds – not just vaccination targets – being considered before further restrictions are lifted.
Ontario to focus on keeping ‘the vast majority’ safe
But the question remains: Can Ontario follow the Alberta route?
When asked at a news conference Thursday if Ontario would take a similar approach, Attorney General Sylvia Jones did not specifically answer either way, instead merely confirming that the province’s current internal masking policy would remain in place for now.
“We will continue the path that keeps the vast majority of Ontarians safe and hopefully people will do the right thing and get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” she said.
More than 80 percent of Ontarians age 12 or older have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Department of Health said Thursday.
This means that one of the three conditions set by the county to move beyond Step 3 of its plan to reopen has now been met.
The county said that if all of those conditions are met, the majority of restrictions could be lifted as early as August 6.
CBC Toronto has reached out to the Department of Health to comment on Alberta’s latest move, and whether or not Ontario will consider a similar approach in the future, but has yet to receive a response.