Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in Alberta will no longer be required to isolate for at least 10 days—a policy that will soon make the western Canadian province’s public health restrictions among the loosest in North America.
Despite a rise in cases over the past two weeks, Albertans infected with COVID-19 will only be “strongly recommended” to isolate as of August 16, according to the provincial government’s website. In a news conference last week, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, explained the province’s public health system needs to respond to a variety of diseases besides COVID-19, especially as fall approaches.
“What we know from looking around the world is that COVID-19 will not be eliminated,” Hinshaw told reporters. “We will be needing to live with this virus for years to come.”
That same day, the government announced anyone in close contact with an infected person would no longer be required to quarantine. According to the Alberta government website, the province will begin “bringing the health response in line with influenza and other respiratory viruses.” Isolation hotels, used by people infected with COVID-19 to safely wait out their infection period, will no longer be available in Alberta.
The province’s health services agency will also be cutting back on the number of contact tracers it uses, according to the Calgary Herald—and contact tracers wouldn’t be notifying close contacts of infected people anymore, although they will continue to investigate high-risk settings like care facilities. It stopped offering asymptomatic tests on July 29. Meanwhile, the Alberta government will no longer require masks on public transit, taxis, or rideshare vehicles as of August 16th.
By the end of August, the Herald reported, all COVID-19 testing centres across Alberta will close their doors at a time when COVID-19 cases across the province are climbing. The most recent government statistics from August 2 show there were 2,176 active cases across Alberta. On July 1, there were just over 1,000 active cases—and Alberta’s r-value, or the number of additional people a COVID-19 positive person infects—is currently sitting at 1.48. Hospitalizations have remained steady in recent weeks, with only 90 currently in hospital. The Alberta government claims 76 percent of Albertans 12 and up have received at least one dose.
Many doctors within Alberta are furious at the decision to end mandatory isolation and contact tracing efforts. Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary-based emergency room physician who’s been very outspoken about the worsening COVID-19 situation in Alberta, told VICE World News that he got a couple hours of advance warning about the announcement and told his coworkers—but they thought he wasn’t serious.
“Nobody could believe that a government would be so callous towards its own citizens in a time of pandemic,” he said.
In an interview with the Herald shortly after the removal of mandatory isolation rules, Dr. Shazma Mithani, who works in the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, called the decision to relax nearly all containment measures against COVID-19 a “complete slap in the face.” Even Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was quoted by the Herald as saying the new rules were “the height of insanity.”
Parents of children under the age of 12, who still cannot be vaccinated in Canada, are especially concerned about the possibility of their children running into unmasked or infectious people. Sarah Elder-Chamanara, the owner and CEO of Madame Premier, a political and feminist clothing business in Calgary, says she was dismayed, angered, and confused when she first hear about the changes.
“It was a really overwhelming moment for myself and a lot of parents in Alberta—to all of a sudden realize that the government has little to no regard for children under 12,” she told VICE World News.
Unlike the pandemic’s early days, when the elderly were the most at-risk of ending up in the hospital with severe COVID-19, Vipond worries that the Delta variant will “rip” through Alberta’s younger, unvaccinated population.
“They’re going to be the ones that are going to be filling our hospital beds and our ICU beds,” he says.
VICE World News reached out to a spokesperson with the Alberta premier’s office for comment on Tuesday morning. A spokesperson acknowledged the request, but did not offer any answers.
Alberta has spent the last few months shedding its public health precautions much faster than the rest of Canada, despite lagging behind on vaccination. Only 64 percent of Alberta’s total population has received at least one dose as of July 24, according to cumulative data from the Public Health Agency of Canada—the third lowest rate among Canadian provinces and territories. To kick off what Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has called the “Best Summer Ever”, the province got rid of its mask mandate and all capacity limits on indoor and outdoor social gatherings.
This included hosting the Calgary Stampede, a massive 10-day western themed festival held between July 8 and July 18th that recorded nearly 529,000 total visitors. While the Stampede did implement some distancing and sanitization protocols, including a rapid testing requirement for its Nashville North venue, Vipond says Stampede-goers who gathered at bars or private parties may have spread the virus.
Alberta has also not been terribly responsive to the COVID-19 pandemic even when it was at its worst in the province. In early 2020, at least 950 staff at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., tested positive for COVID-19, and three died, making it the largest outbreak in Canada. Alberta health officials did not immediately shut the plant down despite having the power to do so. Police are now investigating the death of one Cargill worker.
“There’s been reluctance on the part of Jason Kenney and his government to acknowledge the severity of this and to put measures into place at times,” Elder-Chamanara says. “We’ve gone into our second and third waves after delayed responses from them.”
In the days immediately following the lifting of mandatory isolation protocols, hundreds of Albertans took to the streets in Calgary and Edmonton to protest the removal of the mandatory isolation rules. Vipond is one of the chief organizers of these rallies.
“We need to have momentum,” Vipond said. “We need to have a lot of people willing to go and spend an hour of their day saying that this is not acceptable.”
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