In the early days of the pandemic, Jason Kenney compared COVID-19 to an “influenza.”
Now, it seems, Alberta’s official policy will be to treat it like one. Effective immediately, those who are close contacts of someone testing positive for COVID-19 won’t have to isolate, and contact tracers will no longer tell people if they’ve been exposed to the virus. Come Aug. 16, isolation hotels and other quarantine supports will be discontinued, and the provincial masking mandate for transit, taxis and ride-share vehicles will also lift. Alberta’s so-called “best summer ever” will apparently wrap up with a full return to the pre-COVID normal.
This full-steam-ahead strategy hasn’t been tried anywhere else in Canada. It won’t be replicated in Ontario, where Solicitor General Sylvia Jones told the Globe and Mail that “we are going to continue with the pathway that keeps the vast majority of Ontario citizens safe.” In the United States, meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend that everyone, vaccinated or not, should wear a mask indoors in places where the virus is spreading rapidly. That’s because of the Delta variant, which a leaked internal document from the CDC described as being as infectious as chickenpox.
The good news is that vaccines appear to be mitigating the worst outcomes from this new variant, which means fewer deaths and hospitalizations. But Alberta, a province with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, seems like the wrong place to be pursuing such an aggressive strategy. “With 25 per cent of the population over the age of 12 not immunized, we have a lot of kindling, and we have a Delta variant which burns very hot,” former Alberta chief medical officer of health James Talbot said in a recent interview. “That’s not good when you combine it with the fourth wave.”
Then again, as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi noted, you can’t have a fourth wave if you eliminate the ability to identify it. “Lifting restrictions on people is one thing. But lifting basic public health measures like asking people who test positive to isolate and then not testing anymore strikes me as — I just need to understand the rationale there,” Nenshi said. “I guess it means we’re not going to have a fourth wave because we won’t know, because we’re not testing.”
This squares with the United Conservative Party’s approach to the pandemic, which has always erred on the side of leaping before looking. But according to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, its latest decision to roll the dice came straight from the desk of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health. “I am deferential to the independence and credibility of Dr. Hinshaw and her work,” he said in a Wednesday press conference. When asked whether the direction to move from a pandemic to endemic stage came from his government or Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Shandro was clear it “came from Dr. Hinshaw.” Clearly, when it comes to the Kenney government’s latest COVID-19 gamble, the buck is going to stop somewhere else.
For her part, Dr. Deena Hinshaw faces an unpleasant choice: Resign now or risk being made to wear this later if it goes sideways, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #COVID #Alberta #UCP
But despite having this decision laid at her feet, Hinshaw is not as independent as Shandro might want people to believe. She serves an advisory role to the cabinet he sits in, and his party voted down a motion last fall that would have made her an independent officer of the legislative assembly. As Lorian Hardcastle and Ubaka Ogbogu (law professors at the University of Calgary and University of Alberta) wrote in a June op-ed, “the political reality is that while the government is content to have the CMOH serve as the spokeswoman for their political decisions and to expand her legal authority accordingly, they are simultaneously foisting her into an advisory role where they dictate the contents of the orders that bear her signature.”
Nonetheless, Hinshaw seems more than happy to defend her most recent orders. In an interview with the CBC’s Jim Brown, she suggested it was time to start focusing on other risks to public health. “We knew that we wouldn’t be able to continue to test everyone with just a mild illness, just a mild sniffle, that just wouldn’t be possible because there’s going to be so many more viruses out there.” She also traded in the premier’s comparison between COVID-19 and the flu. “It’s important to remember that COVID-19 isn’t the only risk our kids face. For children under 12, COVID-19 infection is equivalent to, or even possibly slightly less risky, than seasonal influenza.”
The difference, of course, is that children under 12 can be immunized against the flu. And if the Kenney government is concerned about the dangers posed by the flu to children, they could extend the masking mandate in schools for the duration of the fall. But the health and safety of Alberta’s children seems secondary to the government’s desire to get back to business as usual, whatever the cost.
For her part, Dr. Hinshaw faces an unpleasant choice: resign now or risk being made to wear this later if it goes sideways. After all, the government has clearly decided to place her in front of the COVID-19 bus. It’s up to her to decide whether she wants to step out of its way or not.