COVID-19: No clear answer on when Alberta’s public health restrictions will be lifted

Click to play video: 'Alberta records 26 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday' Alberta records 26 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday
WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Deena Hinshaw announces Alberta recorded 26 additional pandemic-related deaths and 843 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. – Jan 5, 2021

The short answer is that at this point, no decision has been made regarding when any of the current COVID-19 measures, guidelines and restrictions in Alberta will be lifted.

The long answer is, it’s complicated.

Like much of the world, a number of restrictions remain in place in Alberta in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The majority of the province’s Grade 7 to 12 students have been online learning since the end of November. This decision was announced by Premier Jason Kenney and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw at a news conference on Nov. 24, 2020 as a way to help control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Students are expected to resume in-person learning on Monday.

Read more: COVID-19: School board chair says she got no ‘heads up’ from Alberta government about new measures impacting schools

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Other measures were implemented in Alberta on Dec. 8, 2020, including a ban on socializing with anyone other than members of your own household, the forced suspension of personal services like salons, barbers and gyms as well as a ban on in-person dining in restaurants. A provincewide requirement for masks to be worn in indoor public spaces was also brought in.

Retail stores and grocery stores remain open but had to temporarily limit the number of customers they allowed in from 25 per cent of a store’s capacity to 15 per cent.

These measures were expected to be in place for a minimum of four weeks, until Jan. 12, 2021.

Other short-term, targeted restrictions announced on Nov. 12, 2020, including the suspension of amateur team sports, indoor group fitness, singing, theatre and dance classes, remain in place as of the first week of January. At the time of the November announcement, these temporary measures were meant to be in effect until Nov. 27, 2020.

Read more: New restrictions announced for Alberta as 860 COVID-19 cases, 10 deaths reported Thursday

At this point there has been no formal announcement about when any of these current restrictions will be lifted.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the cabinet COVID-19 health committee is meeting later this week to discuss the latest numbers to get a better picture of where Alberta is at. Shandro cautioned against using the province’s most recent numbers as a measure of the severity of the situation because so few people got tested over the holidays.

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Click to play video: 'Restriction limbo: businesses frustrated with lack of reopening date from Alberta government' Restriction limbo: businesses frustrated with lack of reopening date from Alberta government
Restriction limbo: businesses frustrated with lack of reopening date from Alberta government – Jan 6, 2021

This is something infectious disease specialist Dr. Craig Jenne also echoed.

“I think we really need the next three or four days to get back to our full-scale testing, knowing that the more tests we do, the more reliable the numbers are,” he said.

Shandro said that at the very least, the current measures will remain in place until Jan. 12, 2021.

Breaking down the numbers that matter

Throughout the past two months, as restrictions have been issued, officials have cited a few key metrics as being determining factors about when these restrictions or measures will be eased or lifted, including the R value (reproduction value), the test positivity rate and the ability of Alberta’s health-care system to be able to manage acute cases.

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When the targeted restrictions were announced in November, there were 225 people being treated in hospital for COVID-19 — including 51 in the intensive care unit — and 393 Albertans had succumbed to the disease.

When Kenney announced the more strict restrictions in December, he cited a sharp increase in acute cases of COVID-19 in the province as being what prompted the move.

“That (hospitalization) number has grown by 600 per cent since the last week of October,” Kenney said on Dec. 8, 2020. “Six-hundred-and-forty Albertans have now passed away from COVID-19.”

At that time, 654 people were being treated in hospital with 112 of those in the ICU.

As of Tuesday, there are 919 people being treated for COVID-19 in hospital — 140 of whom are in the ICU — and 1,168 people have died from COVID-19 in just under 10 months.

Kenney has regularly pointed to the R value as being one of the factors that would indicate any restrictions have been effective, as well as a drop in the number of people requiring hospitalization.

Read more: Kenney says COVID-19 R value isn’t ‘state secret’ but data still not publicly accessible

The test positivity rate (the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive) has also been shared more and more over the past couple of months as an important data point.

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“Two months ago, on Oct. 8, our positivity rate was just 1.34 per cent… today our positivity rate is 9.41 per cent,” Hinshaw said on Dec. 8, 2020.

According to the province, as of Tuesday, the R value sits at .99 provincewide with a test positivity rate of 8.2 per cent.

In November, Kenney mentioned it would be unlikely any restrictions would be lifted until the R value was sitting around .8.

What next?

During Tuesday’s news conference, Shandro said the COVID-19 cabinet committee will also be meeting next week.

According to Jenne, it will take until mid-January at least before health officials really know how Christmas will affect Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers.

He said some of the key metrics, including the R value, are promising, as well as a seemingly consistent test positivity rate.

Jenne also said Tuesday that hospitalization rates — which are independent from figures like the number of people tested for the novel coronavirus — have shown to be consistent recently, something he sees as a good trend.

COVID-19 in schools

On Monday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange sent a tweet confirming online learning was resuming Jan. 4 with a plan for students to resume in-person learning on Jan. 11.

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The Calgary Board of Education told Global News that until it hears otherwise, it is also planning to have students return to schools on Monday.

In an email to Global News on Tuesday, LaGrange’s acting press secretary Nicole Sparrow reiterated the plan is still to have students return to school Jan. 11.

“We will continue to follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health and we are ready to make changes to the school re-entry plan when needed based on her advice,” Sparrow said. “We are in regular contact with education partners, including school boards across Alberta, to deal with the challenges that arise during learning in a COVID-19 environment.

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“The safety and well-being of our staff and students continues to be our No. 1 priority.”

However, Jenne said there is a key difference in Alberta’s situation today as compared to the fall. He said while schools were not driving the spread a few months ago, there were key reasons for that, including lower rates of transmission and case numbers in the community, as well as a lack of new variants of the coronavirus.

“The chances of any one student bringing the virus into the school is much higher now than it was in September or October,” he said. “And we do not want schools to become a source of viral transmission.”

Role of the new variants

Jenne pointed out it is important to understand why the current measures and restrictions are in place.

“Our current restrictions are based on how we understand the virus moves,” he said, adding that as more cases of the new coronavirus variants are seen, officials will likely need to adjust restrictions to target how they spread through a community.

“If that virus does change and it spreads much more easily and or much further… we will be forced to change our plans. And that might include the ability to control the spread within the school system.”

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Jenne spoke of how research seems to show the new variants do not necessarily make people more sick. However, he said if it does have the potential to infect more people overall, that will translate to more acute cases and more severe outcomes.

Will ‘Alohagate’ affect Albertans’ tendency to follow any restrictions?

Both Shandro and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver acknowledged Tuesday that Albertans have a reason to be frustrated to learn that a number of provincial government officials travelled over the holiday season, even though the government has advised against non-essential travel. 

Read more: 2 members of mayor’s office travelled to Hawaii: Nenshi

Hinshaw pointed out there are is a robust list of legal orders, as well as recommendations online to help control the spread of the coronavirus and she encouraged everyone to follow as many of the restrictions as they can.

“We ask all Albertans, regardless of who you are, to follow the orders and the guidance,” Shandro said.

Click to play video: '‘We’re sorry, but I’m not asking for forgiveness’: Shandro addresses government COVID-19 travel controversy' ‘We’re sorry, but I’m not asking for forgiveness’: Shandro addresses government COVID-19 travel controversy
‘We’re sorry, but I’m not asking for forgiveness’: Shandro addresses government COVID-19 travel controversy – Jan 5, 2021

He also said that while he acknowledges Albertans are rightfully frustrated by the decisions made by many government officials to ignore federal and provincial recommendations to avoid non-essential travel, “my message to Albertans, again, is that (these measures are) working. And thank you for your sacrifices.”

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Hinshaw said she thinks the past couple of days have served as a reminder that Albertans are tired of these restrictions and frustrated “with neighbours and friends and people who perhaps took shortcuts or did not follow all of the measures over the holidays.”

“Every day we are presented with a choice about how we want to react to our circumstances,” Hinshaw said.

“And the choice that’s in front of us today — as Albertans — is whether we continue to pick up our game and care for each other by following those restrictions, or whether we choose to let this divide us.”

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