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Sparse COVID-19 data could lead Alberta to ‘fly blind’ in pandemic: experts

Click to play video: 'Future of Alberta COVID-19 Data' Future of Alberta COVID-19 Data
WATCH: Changes will soon be coming to COVID-19 testing in the province and researchers say that will impact Alberta’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Julia Wong explains. – Aug 10, 2021

Alberta will soon be winding down mass coronavirus testing and there are worries over the future of COVID-19 data in the province.

Doctors have pushed back against the removal of mass testing, the lifting of mandatory requirements to isolate after a positive test and the elimination of contact tracing for the general public, while the province has defended itself since the new protocols were announced at the end of July.

READ MORE: ‘I wasn’t clear’: Hinshaw not happy about how Alberta’s eased COVID-19 response was shared

Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, said these changes will have an impact on COVID-19 data collection.

“It’s going to have a significant negative effect on the kind of information that we would need to have in order to inform, in an ongoing manner, our behaviour,” he said.

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“The decisions people make from moment to moment, from day to day, what they will do and not do given where COVID-19 cases are spreading, where the outbreaks are happening.”

Muhajarine said the changes put Alberta in “an interesting and difficult predicament” and he hopes other provinces do not follow suit,

“Alberta is the odd province out. It’s really an exception in Canada in the way they are responding to COVID in mid-August,” he said.

READ MORE: NDP calls on Alberta government to release internal COVID-19 modelling

The only modelling released by the province was near the start of the pandemic; no other modelling has been shared with Albertans. While modelling may not be a crystal ball, it can provide a sense of what may be to come.

At the height of the third wave, new daily case numbers fell just below 2,500. An analysis by developmental biologist Gosia Gasperowicz, who is based at the University of Calgary, projects there will be 5,000 new daily cases in Alberta by mid-September.

“It’s not taking into account the changes. With the changes, it will probably be faster,” Gasperowicz said.

However, she acknowledges it will be difficult to model moving forward if data is incomplete.

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“We won’t know what is happening, and it’s super dangerous,” Gasperowicz said.

“If we don’t know, and rely only on when hospitals are full… the cases will still grow and hospitalizations will still grow exponentially before it will bend.”

Sally Otto, an expert in mathematical modelling of biological systems and evolutionary biology, is part of a team in B.C doing COVID-19 modelling both in that province and in Alberta.

The B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group projects Alberta will see numbers never before seen in the province during the pandemic, both when it comes to new daily cases and hospitalization admissions.

“If Alberta bends down the curve again, those projections won’t pan out,” Otto said.

“What is of concern is Alberta doesn’t seem to be interested in bending this curve down in the near future.”

Otto also noted that changes to data collection will affect how the province responds to COVID-19.

“Basically, garbage in, garbage out. If we now start having no data, model projections cannot guide us to what we’re likely to see in the near future. And who wants to fly blind?” she said.

“Flying blind without the data, with rising case numbers, is a public health nightmare.”

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A spokesperson for Alberta Health said the province is moving to targeted and local measures in areas of high risk and turning its attention to other health issues faced by the province.

“(Chief medical officer of health) Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw and her team made the COVID-19 adaptation changes that will come into effect mid-month according to the best possible scientific data,” said spokesperson Lisa Glover.

“We want that data to be accessible to Albertans and we are working to make that happen in the coming weeks as COVID adaptation measures come into effect.”

Glover also said the province will be relying on wastewater surveillance, clinical testing, sentinel surveillance in primary care and outbreak testing to monitor trends and impacts.

Changes effective Aug. 16

– Provincial mandatory masking orders will be lifted. Some masking in acute care or continuing care facilities may still be required.
– Isolation following a positive COVID-19 test result will no longer be required, but strongly recommended.
– Individuals with symptoms of any respiratory infection should still remain at home until symptoms have resolved.
– Staying home when sick remains an important way to care for those around us by not passing on any infection.
– Isolation hotels and quarantine support will no longer be available.
– Testing will be available for Albertans with symptoms when it is needed to help direct patient care decisions.
– This testing will be available through assessment centres until Aug. 31 and, after that, will be in primary care settings including physicians’ offices. For those with severe illness requiring urgent or emergency care, testing will be available in acute care and hospital settings.
– COVID-19 testing will also be offered as needed in high-risk outbreaks such as in continuing care facilities.
– Public health will focus on investigating severe cases that require hospitalization and any deaths due to COVID-19.
– Outbreak management and preventative measures will continue focusing on outbreaks in high-risk settings, such as continuing and acute care facilities.
– Community outbreaks will continue to be addressed as needed.
– Daycares and schools will be supported with measures that would be effective for any respiratory virus if outbreaks are identified.

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Changes effective Aug. 31

– COVID-19 testing will no longer be available through assessment centres. It will be available in primary care settings, including doctors’ offices, or in acute care and hospital settings.
– Universal masking will not be required in schools once students return. However, it is recommended as a temporary outbreak intervention in response to respiratory outbreaks. A guidance document to support return to schools is being finalized and will be released in mid-August.

–With files from Global News’ Emily Mertz

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