Alberta will be moving to new COVID-19 protocols on Monday, but there are concerns about what those changes could mean for the numbers of those living with long COVID.
Those dealing with long COVID continue to suffer symptoms, such as fatigue, shortness of breath and body pains, weeks to months after their initial diagnosis. More than half of COVID-19 patients might be suffering from long-term symptoms more than 12 weeks after testing positive, according to a recent review by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Effective Aug. 16, provincial mandatory masking orders will be lifted (though some masking in acute or continuing care facilities may still be required), isolation after a positive test result will no longer be required and testing will only be available for Albertans with symptoms when it is needed to help direct patient care decisions. Contact tracing has mostly been eliminated, except in high-risk settings.
“The more cases of COVID we have, the more long COVID individuals we’re going to have suffering over time,” said Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s Strategic Pandemic Committee.
“We’re now dealing with a new variant of COVID – the Delta variant – that is much more transmissible and, obviously, if we go forward in Alberta where we stop testing, stop tracing and stop isolating, we set up the situation for COVID to spread much more quickly.”
Nancy Unterschultz was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January but is still suffering with the effects of long COVID, including coughs, heart palpitations and chest pain.
“I’m tired all the time. I’m weak. I get really frustrated because I can’t get stuff done. I still get short of breath,” she said, explaining that a short walk up her driveway can sometimes wind her.
Unterschultz, who is a nurse, said the changes to the province’s COVID protocols are a “really big mistake.”
“We’re never going to know how many cases we have in Alberta. I’m scared for it. We’re definitely going to head for a fourth wave,” she said.
The Parkland County woman used to enjoy activities such as quadding and knitting frequently, but she does not have the energy to do them now.
She is trying to figure out life with long COVID but, in the meantime, plans to continue wearing a mask and shying away from large crowds.
“I’m just going to go with this attitude – I do me and you do you.”
Students are returning to the classroom and many companies are transitioning back to the office, but Gibney is concerned that case numbers are doubling quickly. On Wednesday, 501 cases were reported; for comparison, one month ago on July 11, 29 cases were reported.
“We could find ourselves where there’s a lot of new infections and as a consequence of that, we would have significant amounts of long COVID into the future,” he said.
“We do know the Delta variant is more likely to have vaccine breakthrough and cause mild infection in vaccinated people. What we don’t know yet is whether those individuals are going to be prone to develop long COVID.”
Gibney said the best way to avoid a significant number of long COVID patients is to avoid infections through testing, tracing and isolating, as well as strategies such as masking.
The province has defended the change in protocols, saying that while there will be new cases, the hospital system will not be overwhelmed.
“The forecasting that we did indicated that, in all of those scenarios, our hospitalizations and ICU would not exceed the capacity of the system, given the vaccine coverage that we have,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Aug. 5.
“We simply can’t continue to focus on COVID as the number one risk we all face.”
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