One day after Premier Jason Kenney announced an aggressive plan to try to fully reopen society in Alberta amid the COVID-19 pandemic this summer, the province’s chief medical officer of health spoke out in favour of it.
“I support this plan,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton on Thursday. “I believe this plan is a prudent approach to reopening.
“My team and I were fully engaged in the development of this plan.”
The plan announced Wednesday comes as the number of new COVID-19 infections and pandemic-related hospitalizations continues to fall after Alberta became a North American hot spot for the novel coronavirus earlier in the spring. It also comes as the province’s number of citizens with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine continues to climb.
The reopening plan centres on three stages. Advancing to each stage requires the province to hit benchmarks for first-dose vaccinations and hospitalizations and at least a two-week interval between each stage. Hinshaw explained Thursday that the two-week gap is to allow for newly immunized people to have their vaccine kick in, a change from the previous reopening plan which called for a minimum of three weeks between stages in order to monitor virus transmission.
“We wanted to make sure that between hitting one trigger and then moving to that particular opening stage, there was a full two weeks so people were achieving … a level of protection,” Hinshaw said, adding that her team will continue “closely monitoring” COVID-19’s spread, the health-care system’s capacity and vaccine uptake.
She added that while first vaccine doses are the “most immediate target we need to reach … second doses are essential.”
If Alberta successfully hits all of its benchmarks in a timely manner, the plan would see almost all public health restrictions lifted by early July, allowing people to stop wearing masks and to attend massive events like the Calgary Stampede.
Hinshaw said that if benchmarks are reached that allow the Stampede to go ahead with large crowds, she does not believe the event will pose a “significant risk to the healthcare system.”
“I believe that this plan will work for Alberta but it will take all of us,” Hinshaw said.
Because of the dramatic surge in new COVID-19 cases in Alberta earlier this spring, the province stopped screening all new COVID-19 cases for COVID-19 variants and moved to a more targeted approach for identifying cases involving variants. Hinshaw said the province’s capacity to screen for variants has recently improved. Alberta Health said over the past five days, about half of all new cases have been screened for variants.
Hinshaw said that labs have also been developing the capacity to do rapid screening for the B.1.617 variant. A spokesperson for Alberta Health said the public will be notified when that program is implemented.
Hinshaw, who was joined by Kenney for Thursday’s news conference, also explained that she was not part of the reopening announcement a day earlier because of plans she had made long ago to have the day off to spend with her children.
Vaccination critical to Alberta’s reopening
On Thursday, Kenney described the plan as “Alberta’s response to the science of vaccines.”
“At the end of the day we cannot permanently rely on damaging public health restrictions,” he said. “Especially now as we have the incredibly powerful tool of vaccines.”
Kenney reiterated his government’s position that getting a vaccine will never be mandatory, but said people getting their shots will be the best way to protect themselves and others and “accelerate our return to normal.”
“We need to keep driving for ever higher numbers for better protection.”
The premier noted about 2.2 million Albertans have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 2.5 million doses have now been administered.
“We are scheduled to receive 1.4 million additional doses over the next four weeks,” Kenney said, adding that over half-a-million Albertans are scheduled to receive a vaccine dose over the next two weeks.
He said that with the vaccine shipments the province is now receiving, the province can soon start to allow for more second doses even as it continues to administer people’s first doses.
“We’re now starting to receive a sufficiently large supply of doses to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Kenney noted that Alberta is currently ahead of the national average for second doses.
When asked why Alberta was not immediately offering more second doses as the province has 100,000 available vaccine appointments over the next 15 days, Hinshaw said most of those available appointments are towards the end of that time frame.
“We want to make sure all Albertans who are eligible for their first dose have that ability,” she said.
Hinshaw added that her team continues to closely watch vaccine shipments and supply and hopes to be able to announce a plan next week to shorten the interval between Albertans’ first and second doses.
When asked about how the province plans to address the fact that some regions in Alberta have seen far lower vaccination numbers than elsewhere in the province, Hinshaw said her team will continue to monitor such situations and look at whether there may be unique barriers to vaccination in some areas that can be addressed.
Albertans will need to assess own risk from COVID-19
When asked about criticism of his government’s reopening plan, Kenney suggested he believes those criticisms stem more from ideology than anything else.
“If 70 per cent population protection is not adequate, then what is?” he asked rhetorically. “Perhaps some of that is coming from the advocates of so-called “COVID-zero,” who are willing to inflict endless damage on our broader social health to completely eliminate risk.
“At some point, we have to personalize the risk.”
Kenney said public health restrictions have helped prevent the overwhelming of the province’s healthcare capacity but have also caused “massive collateral damage on people’s lives and constitutional freedoms.”
The premier said he believes there is now a “strange alliance coming together” involving people skeptical of vaccines and people who support “hard lockdowns.”
“They’re essentially telling us vaccines are not the way out of this,” he said. “They are undermining public confidence in the benefits of vaccines.”
Hinshaw said while public health measures have been needed and saved lives, they’ve also been “unprecedented.”
“(We) need to be as mindful of recovering from the impacts the last year has had on Albertans’ mental well-being,” she said.
Hinshaw added that when Alberta emerges from under public health restrictions, “individuals will need to navigate those risks based on their own individual profile.”
She noted some people may choose to continue wearing masks and that is OK. She also said it will continue to be important to be mindful of ways to protect others from getting sick and to stay home when not feeling well.
“We are at a crucial point in the pandemic,” Hinshaw said of the situation at the moment. “Seize the opportunity in front of us … (Get) vaccinated … Follow the rules as long as they are in effect.”
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Hinshaw said Alberta Health identified 513 new COVID-19 cases in the province on Thursday and completed about 9,000 coronavirus tests over the last 24 hours.
The province’s positivity rate is currently at 6.1 per cent. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 538 people in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19, 150 of whom were in intensive-care units.
Alberta Health also confirmed Thursday there has been another COVID-19 death, a woman in her 50s in the Calgary zone. Health officials said the case included comorbidities.
Hinshaw offered her condolences to the loved ones of the woman who died and noted “each death is yet another reminder that … while we are looking for brighter days ahead, this virus is not yet tamed.”