Action came late while COVID raged, health experts say
Infectious disease doctors say hesitation to further restrict Albertans concerning
EDMONTON The Government of Alberta has faced a variety of criticisms over how it has handled the second wave of COVID-19, but its previous response was widely regarded as a success.
Chief among the second wave concerns is timing.
Within two weeks of the first case of COVID-19 being detected within Alberta's borders in March, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced schools would be closing, business would be shuttered and everyone who could would be working from home.
On May 22, just over two months after schools were closed, the province announced 32 new cases and 865 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. Fifty-four COVID-19 patients were in the hospital at that point.
While case numbers remained low throughout the summer and early fall months, November and December saw a sharp increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Premier Jason Kenney appeared at a COVID-19 update on Nov. 12 to announce that all indoor gatherings would be prohibited. He also announced restrictions on sports and fitness classes, as well as for choir and theatre groups. Additional restrictions were implemented on Nov. 24.
On Dec. 8, the premier once again joined Hinshaw at her daily media briefing to announce that outdoor gatherings were banned.
Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues would be shutting their doors later that week and retail stores were limited to 15 per cent capacity.
The premier announced 1,727 new cases that day. Since then, daily case counts have levelled off, with 1,021 cases reported Dec. 22.
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta, said that by waiting to implement the toughest set of restrictions, Albertans could be locked down longer. She argues current measures should have come down earlier in November.
“We've kind of let things get fairly out of control before putting in prescriptive measures. You know, at the end of the day, I think by waiting for so long, we're just going to end up having to have restrictions for longer,” said Smith.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, another infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta, said the latest restrictions appear to be working, but agrees they should have been implemented sooner.
“We are in a position now where the health-care system is quite stressed over Christmas,” said Saxinger.
“It seems likely some of that could have been averted if restrictions had been put in place a little bit earlier so that we didn't have that sustained long peak of 1,500plus cases a day.”
Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said restrictions have a heavy cost and should be implemented as a last resort.
“Our approach has not changed, we continue to implement restrictions in the most targeted way possible,” said Buick in an email. “We're committed to a balanced approach aimed at saving lives and livelihoods, and maintaining capacity in our health system.”
He said other areas of the country are struggling with the second wave of COVID-19 and that Alberta's mortality rate is half the national average.
At a recent COVID-19 update, Kenney said he does not regret his timing of implementing restrictions. He said the recent plateau of cases is proof that his government's layered approach was the right one.
“So what we saw was that the constant increase in the growth rate abated as a result of measures that were in place in November, I think that actually confirms the wisdom of our layered and gradual approach,” said Kenney.
However, Smith has a more skeptical view of the timing of Kenney's restrictions. In the summer months she gave the government an A- in their response to COVID-19. When asked how she would grade the government six months later, she said she “would lower that.”
“We're talking about people's lives here and certainly livelihoods as well. But I do think that by delaying all these restrictions, we're actually, you know, creating more problems for livelihood,” said Smith.
While critiquing aspects of the government's response, Smith also said there were factors in Alberta that were out of the government's hands.
She said early on in the pandemic, Alberta benefited from a relatively low population density and the ability for people to get outside. However, those positive factors of space and weather turned sour in the fall as the mercury dropped in the province earlier than in Ontario or Quebec, forcing Albertans to gather indoors.
“We weren't really able to do a lot of socializing outside in late October. And that's a lot earlier than other provinces, potentially, which I think probably drove people inside, that there's more mixing in close quarters,” said Smith.
She also said people have grown tired after 10 months of various restrictions over their travel, socializing and how they work.
“I think that there's a lot of people basically just saying `I'm not adhering to these measures,'” said Smith.