In her first one-on-one interview with Global News since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday she regrets the way a health order she signed over the weekend was handled, and that she believes her opinions and recommendations have always been taken with respect from elected officials in the province.
The interview was set up by Alberta Health officials to allow Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, to further clarify a health order she signed over the weekend that led to online backlash.
Order 33 gives clarification for educators on school guidance, including masks, and also specifies that physical distancing measures do not need to be in place if a student, staff member or visitor is seated at a desk or table.
“I want to say that I really regret any anxiety or confusion that happened because of the timing of that order coming out,” Hinshaw told Global News Tuesday afternoon. “And I recognize that it would have been better if we’d be able to finalize it earlier and had it released during the week when we could have spoke proactively about it.
“I feel for parents who are feeling anxious and feeling that this messaging at this time causes confusion and anxiety.”
Hinshaw said the order was signed to give school officials official guidance that “was not optional” when it came to masks, distancing and other COVID-19 measures.
“I want to be really clear that distancing is not optional in all places and schools. And distancing is an important part of the back-to-school plan,” she said. “The exception is, if students are seated, they’re not moving around, they’re not interacting in a dynamic way. So if they’re seated, if their desks are spaced as far apart as possible and if they’re not facing each other.
“If a school was going to be pursuing physical distancing at all times in order to minimize use of masks, then what we wanted to do is make sure that it was clear in that order how that could be accomplished,” Hinshaw said.
“The opinions of our policy team in the ministry was that the order was necessary to be able to provide that legal clarity of the requirement of masking, and the legal clarity on what would be required for a school to pursue a non-masking in-person return to school, so that was the advice we received and that’s why we pursued that particular course of action.”
Hinshaw added that she wants Albertans to understand the recommendations have not changed since they were first announced in early August, and that distancing and masks are just a part of the efforts being made in schools.
“Even if it were possible to distance two metres at all times while in a class, there still would not be zero risk of COVID,” Hinshaw said.
“There will always be some risk of COVID exposure, whenever you bring people together in any setting.
“The really good thing about the Alberta model, and I think one of the things that supports those individual parents who don’t want any risk of COVID, is the option that they have to have their child in an alternate form of schooling.”
Advice to the province is always taken ‘respectfully’
Hinshaw also spoke about how the process works between her and the province. The chief medical officer of health position is a member of the Alberta Health executive team and reports to the minister of health.
“My recommendations are made based on the available evidence, on jurisdictional experiences, and how they translate to the Alberta context,” Hinshaw explained. “And my best judgement is based on all that information. And then the political element comes in when the elected officials take those recommendations and make the decisions that they’re chosen by our population to make.
“My advice has always been respectfully considered,” she said.
“I don’t have a monopoly on truth… I’ve always felt that I can make recommendations freely and they’ve always been considered and integrated into a final decision.”
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney defended Hinshaw — and said that the government has worked with her through the entire pandemic to take the most “science-based” routes through reopening.
“Alberta’s plan is broadly similar to that of other provinces,” he said. “I trust the expert, science-based advice that we receive from the chief medical officer and her team of public health experts.”
Hinshaw also thanked the teams she has worked with amid the pandemic, both in the government and at Alberta Health Services.
“It’s been busy, and I’m grateful to work with a really incredible team at the ministry and AHS, and also to have amazing support from my family. So I can’t complain about all of those pieces — but it has been very busy.”