Alberta is pausing the move forward with lifting COVID-19 restrictions to monitor increasing cases of the Delta variant until Sept. 27.
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw made the announcement Friday morning.
All public health restrictions were scheduled to lift on Monday but will now stay in place for another six weeks.
“We are not going backwards. We are pausing to monitor and assess before taking a step forward,” Hinshaw said in a news conference. “If monitoring confirms our original expectations that a rise in cases will not lead to high levels of (hospitalizations) and we do not see evidence of increased risk for severe disease for children, we will proceed with implementing the next set of changes after Sept. 27.”
Many Albertans have expressed concerns about children returning to classrooms in September, especially since those under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
Hinshaw had repeatedly said children are at low risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19, though she noted Friday there has been a rise in hospitalizations among children in some U.S. states with lower vaccination rates.
“I want to further monitor these trends,” she said. “I do not share this information to cause alarm. To date, we have not seen a similar rise in severe cases in youth here in Alberta. Since July 1, we have only had seven cases in hospital under the age of 18.”
Hinshaw recently said Albertans need to learn to live with COVID-19 and she hopes to get back on that path.
“Ultimately, how we have managed COVID before widespread vaccine availability is neither sustainable nor good for the overall health of Albertans and we do need to consider making that shift, the timing of which will be informed by the data.”
Calgary epidemiologist Dr. Kelly Burak said Friday’s announcement was an important step.
“Test, trace, isolate are such fundamental principles of public health that it was absolutely essential that that didn’t end right now with cases going up and already seeing an uptick in hospitalizations.”
Burak added data collection is key and needs to remain in place throughout the pandemic, along with masking and isolation protocols.
“We all want to get back to normalcy but, unfortunately, this virus has humbled us on many occasions and I think the more data that we have around cases throughout the fall and winter as we move back indoors is going to be really important.”
Burak agrees with Hinshaw that vaccine uptake is the way forward and how we’re going to mitigate the magnitude of the fourth wave of COVID-19, but adds it’s not clear how the government plans to make that happen.
“How are we going to get vaccine rates up? How are we going to encourage more people to wear masks?” he said.
“We have to, in the next few weeks, get more individuals vaccinated and we have to be considering wearing masks indoors when we’re around others, even if we’re vaccinated, to help mitigate the spread of the Delta variant and the impact of the fourth wave.”
Critics of the province’s plan have drawn attention to Alberta’s limited number of pediatric intensive care beds and the potential for young people to develop serious illnesses such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, severe COVID-19 pneumonia and long-haul COVID-19 effects.
Alberta currently has the highest active COVID-19 case count in Canada.