‘The inevitable next step’: Alberta health minister defends COVID-19 policy changes

EDMONTON — Alberta’s health minister defended a series of changes to the province’s COVID-19 response plan, calling the loosening of restrictions “the inevitable next step.”

Tyler Shandro spoke to reporters in Edmonton on Thursday, citing vaccination numbers and comparably lower risk of severe outcomes for children who contract COVID-19. 

“The data shows that what the vaccines are doing is making it less infectious and less deadly. That’s a good thing that allows us to move to that endemic response.”

“The pressures on the health system and our concerns about protecting lives are changing.” 

On Wednesday, the province announced it was shifting its public health response and lifting a number of measures related to quarantine, isolation and masks.

Shandro said the changes were made on the recommendation of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health.

Shandro defended Alberta being the first province to announce such a sizable shift in policy, saying other jurisdictions will soon follow.

“Other provinces know this will be the inevitable next step,” he said.

Shandro also said the province’s trigger to move towards treating COVID-19 as an endemic was a vaccination rate of 65 per cent of eligible Albertans with a second dose. 

The province is nearing that mark with 64.3 per cent of eligible Albertans having had two shots of COVID-19 vaccine. 

LOOSENING RESTRICTIONS

Dr. Hinshaw, in her first appearance since June 29, announced the changes on Wednesday.

Starting today, close contacts of COVID-19 cases will no longer be mandated to quarantine, but isolation will still be required for positive cases and people with symptoms.

On Aug. 16, people who test positive for COVID-19 will not be mandated to quarantine anymore, but the province will recommend it.

Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms will not be asked to get tested, but to stay at home until they feel better. And two weeks later, COVID-19 tests will only be available to people who need to go to the hospital or see a physician.

Masks won’t be mandatory in public transit, rideshares and taxies starting on Aug. 16, the province announced. Some masking may still be required in hospitals or continuing care facilities.

Hinshaw noted a significant amount of concern in the questions raised by primary care physicians while concluding Wednesday evening’s session.

“I want to acknowledge that any course of action we’ve taken throughout COVID has never been risk-free,” said Hinshaw. “Every course of action we take comes with consequences both positive and negative, and it’s no different with this policy change.”

Intensive care unit doctor Dr. Darren Markland told CTV News Edmonton the changes will especially impact young children.

“It will have repercussions,” said Markland. “Especially in younger kids who now potentially can show up maskless, unvaccinated with symptoms, and there will be no repercussions – just spread.”

Noel Gibney, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta’s department of critical care, says the province’s plan leaves too many unanswered questions. 

“Why? Why are we doing these stupid things? Why are we going against all basic principles of public health?” 

“It makes absolutely no medical sense.”

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Alberta has spiked sharply in recent weeks after the removal of most health restrictions on July 1. 

In previous waves, a rise in both hospitalization and deaths has followed several weeks after an increase in cases. 

Dr. Hinshaw had said that pattern may not follow given the protection vaccines afford against severe outcomes.

With files from Diego Romero and Sydney Upright

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