Premier Jason Kenney says he respects the advice of Alberta’s top doctor to lift all COVID-19 public health orders, as local leaders and health-care experts from across the country continue to condemn the province’s plans.
In defence of Alberta’s move to end isolation requirements, contact tracing and asymptomatic testing, Kenney said Tuesday the decision was based on science and data. But he didn’t provide specifics.
“People are understandably anxious about both the disease itself and the damaging affect of restrictions,” said Kenney.
He noted that Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has previously commented about widespread vaccine coverage changing the nature of the provincewide risk of COVID-19.
“This was a package of measures that came forward from the chief medical officer and her team and we respect their data-driven, scientific advice,” said Kenney.
The comments were Kenney’s first on COVID-19 since Hinshaw announced the restriction changes last Wednesday.
The ministry of health did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about the specific data guiding Alberta’s strategy. In a previous statement, Alberta Health acknowledged the province was one of the first to move forward with the approach and pointed to vaccine uptake.
Close contacts of individuals who test positive for the virus are no longer required to isolate, nor are they notified by contact tracers. Come Aug. 16, people infected with COVID-19 will also not be legally required to isolate — though it is recommended.
Kenney said Hinshaw presented the plan to members of the government July 8 and they accepted it without modification.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro similarly diverted to Hinshaw last week when he defended the province’s response.
Hinshaw has previously said she presents the government with scientific evidence, numbers and trends, but the final decision on how to respond to pandemic developments lies with the province.
Dr. Lorian Hardcastle, a health policy expert at the University of Calgary, said Alberta is likely the first jurisdiction in Canada to eliminate all COVID-19 safety measures.
Many consider the move premature as cases continue to grow. Alberta recorded 743 new cases of COVID-19 over the last four days, bringing the active case count to 2,176.
“We have seen some American jurisdictions dial back their restrictions quite significantly, and have for quite a few months, but the reason this goes so far is it eliminates some of those basic public health measures,” said Hardcastle.
“The contact tracing, testing and positive cases staying home are really just fundamental public health restrictions.”
She said earlier steps to allow gatherings and businesses to reopen may have been a concern for individuals, but government officials often modelled the decisions on other jurisdictions.
“There was at least a point of comparison,” said Hardcastle. “In this case … we’re the guinea pig.”
Hundreds of Albertans have attended multiple protests in Calgary and Edmonton since Hinshaw announced the changes. Attendees have called on the province to walk back its plan.
Alberta’s Opposition New Democratic Party is also calling for a public inquiry into Kenney and his United Conservative government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Sarah Hoffman, who is deputy leader for the NDP, said an independent review is necessary. She said it’s also needed because of reports the government won’t release a report into the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Health Minister Tyler Shandro later said on Twitter that the interim report will be released later this week.
“It is clear that Albertans can no longer trust their own government to keep them safe,” Hoffman said.
“A full public inquiry is necessary because it allows Albertans to understand what happened over the course of this pandemic and to plan for the future, so we don’t repeat the same poor decision-making process again.”
—Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press