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Edmonton health advocacy group calls Alberta’s COVID-19 reopening plans ‘highly risky’

WATCH ABOVE: Some Global News videos about Alberta's plan to begin easing some COVID-19 restrictions on Feb. 8.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally said the number of cases involving COVID-19 variants in Alberta is at 68, up from 11 the day before. It has been corrected to say that Alberta now has 68 variant cases of COVID-19, up 11 from the day before. We regret the error.

A group that advocates for health-care workers in the Edmonton area says the plan to begin easing pandemic-related restrictions that was announced by Alberta’s government last week is “premature and highly risky.”

“The new variant COVID-19 strains in Alberta are dramatically more transmissible,” reads an open letter from the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association addressed to Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

“(Alberta Health’s) modelling demonstrated how their increased transmissibility can displace the original strain of the virus and greatly increase the number of COVID-19 cases. The model showed the new variants could reach 10,000 new cases daily and in excess of 3,500 hospitalizations within only eight weeks.

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“In supporting the reliability of the model, we note that in many countries where the variant strains have been become established, particularly the U.K. and Ireland, the variant has rapidly become the dominant strain and caused an explosive increase in new cases.”

READ MORE: Alberta to lift some COVID-19 restrictions and reopen gyms, in-person dining Feb. 8

The letter, dated Feb. 3, 2021, is signed by Dr. James Talbot and Dr. Noel Gibney, the co-chairs of the EZMSA’s strategic COVID-19 pandemic committee. Talbot, a former chief medical officer of health for Alberta, is an adjunct professor of public health at the University of Alberta. Gibney is a professor emeritus in the Department of Critical Care Medicine at the University of Alberta.

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Stage 1 of Alberta’s plan to begin easing restrictions in an effort to further reopen both the economy and society during the pandemic is tentatively set to begin on Feb. 8. Unless the public health crisis deteriorates significantly before Feb. 8, Albertans will be able to go to the gym and eat in a restaurant again but with strict public health measures in place.

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READ MORE: COVID-19: Alberta’s top doctor explains factors behind province’s reopening plan 

While daily numbers for new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalization numbers have been declining in Alberta in recent weeks, the province has also seen a rise in case numbers involving the B.1.1.7. variant, which was first discovered in the U.K., and the N501Y.V2 variant, which was first discovered in South Africa.

Watch below: Some recent videos about the COVID-19 situation in Alberta.

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On Thursday, Alberta reported that it has 68 variant cases of COVID-19 in the province, up 11 from the day before. Seven of the cases have no known link to travel.

READ MORE: U.K. variant of COVID-19 ‘may have entered the broader community’ in Alberta: Shandro 

When asked for comment on the letter Thursday night, a spokesperson for Shandro’s office directed Global News to comments Alberta’s chief medical officer of health made at a news conference earlier in the day when asked about the letter.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw reiterated a position she’s held throughout much of the pandemic, that “there is no one right way through this and there are a diversity of perspectives about how best to manage our situation.”

“We know that when we look at neighbouring provinces of B.C. and Saskatchewan, which at the moment have roughly similar per capita rates to us, they have been operating for quite some time with a very similar frameworks in having limited fitness activities and limited indoor dining, and so I think when we look at our own situation, we need to make sure that we’re looking at the evidence we have, we’re looking at the real world evidence of comparitor provinces and we are remembering that just because we are taking this small step forward on Monday doesn’t mean that we are fully opening those sectors,” she said.

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“Each small step does need to be evaluated over a three-week period to determine whether or not those openings have caused any additional spread.

“And if yes, then unfortunately we may need to pause or take a step backward, and so that is what we’ve always said with respect to this framework.”

With respect to cases involving COVID-19 variants, Hinshaw noted Thursday that it was important for Albertans to remember that “we are currently able to test almost every single positive COVID case for variant strains.”

READ MORE: Hinshaw says COVID-19 vaccine appears to be somewhat effective against variants

“That does help us to detect more that are out there so that we can contain them,” she said. “And it’s important to remember that the reason these new variants are of concern is because of their increased potential for spread. So when we’re able to identify them we can put interventions in place to prevent that from happening.

“We have not seen further spread onward because of the interventions that are in place.”

Talbot told Global News the reason the EZMSA decided to get its message across in the form of an open letter is because “frankly, we have sent a number of communications to the minister and the premier and to my knowledge we haven’t had a… significant reply to any of them yet, so we thought it was best to take our case to the people.”

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“We’re in favour of a staged, cautious reopening that balances health needs with the needs of society as a whole, including the economy,” he said.

Talbot said while he has concerns about the timing of eased restrictions announced for Stage 1, he acknowledges they are “relatively cautious… although it misses out the most important thing that we’ve been asked by our patients for.”

He said what the EZMSA has been hearing from patients is that more than anything, they’d like restrictions to be eased on visiting close friends and family members and he would have preferred an emphasis on making that more possible.

“The numbers are coming down which is a good thing,” Talbot said. “(But) what we’re concerned is going to happen is right at the moment that the new, more transmissible strains are starting to circulate, we’re going to take the breaks off — we’re going to allow more oxygen on that fire.

“Stages 2 through 4 are very alarming. They’re talking about allowing events that are known to be superspreader kind of events. In Stage 4 for example, they’re talking about opening up concerts and sports venues.

“That’s very alarming and when you consider that the new variants that are more transmissible are already present in the province, we thought it was necessary to make sure that the public was aware of these concerns.”

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