In the absence of regular provincial government news conferences, a group of Alberta doctors is providing its own COVID-19 update on Monday afternoon.
“There’s been a lot of people who have wanted some — any kind of movement forward — since our government hasn’t shown the willingness to do anything, despite this exponential rise in hospitalizations, ICUs and cases,” said Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room doctor who has been outspoken about the province’s response to the pandemic.
Vipond is one of the organizers of the “Protect our Province: COVID Briefing.”
It’s being spearheaded by the same medical professionals who led protests during the rollback of the vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions in July, opposing the Alberta government’s plan to lift mandatory isolation rules, scale back contact tracing and COVID-19 testing.
In mid-August, the government announced it would keep those measures for another six weeks.
That was the last time chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was made available to answer questions at a news conference.
Premier Jason Kenney’s last public appearance was three weeks ago on Aug. 9, after which he went on vacation for two weeks.
“It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on, but the way the policy is rolled out, it means that they are allowing this disease to run unmitigated through our unvaccinated population,” Vipond said, adding as a result of that, breakthrough infections amongst the vaccinated are happening as well.
“So if that’s not the intention of the policy, it’s certainly the result of it.”
Vipond said he’s worried the health-care system will quickly become overwhelmed again.
“It takes about two weeks for any kind of policy change to roll through on the numbers, and maybe even more of that for the hospitalization, so even if we were to put in impressive mitigation measures now, it would still be a while before they roll through.
“This is a very serious situation. I can’t say why they’re allowing this to happen, but it seems to be an intentional effort to try to let it rip.”
Dr. Neeja Bakshi, an internal medicine and COVID-19 unit physician, said the virtual news conference will provide a platform for Albertans and news organizations to ask questions.
“We know Albertans have questions, like going back to school, the current state of the health-care system.”
Bakshi said right now, there is a “void” in regards to information in the province.
“We haven’t heard a lot from our public health leaders in the last couple of weeks. There is a lot of anxiety and apprehension about going back to school. We are hopeful we can provide some information and background in regards to what’s going on.”
Vipond said with Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers climbing again, gathering in-person again like this summer’s protests is too dangerous now.
“So we thought, ‘We have all these people with expertise, these scientists, these physicians. Why don’t we try and fill some of the information gap that exists by allowing media and Albertans to ask questions of some of the experts?'”
“We want to provide a forum where Albertans can get the information they need,” Bakshi said. “We are advocating for Albertans. We want to provide a forum that’s outside of a Twitter thread.
“I see what’s happening in the health-care system first-hand, and I can’t be silent.”
Bakshi said the forum will provide context on how Alberta can minimize the threat of COVID-19.
“The lack of information is where my concern is. The policy and how things are executed are not my expertise.
“But arming Albertans with the information they need to make decisions in their life is the bare minimum, and I’m hoping we can provide an unbiased view of that.”
Vipond said this week that the panel will take place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and after that, they will see what works before setting a regular schedule.
“We’re hoping to fill that vacuum, but maybe we’ll also be successful in flushing the government out. Maybe they don’t want us to own the information sphere. Maybe they need to return to the discourse and make themselves available to the media for questioning,” he said.
While one of the goals is to inform citizens and give journalists an opportunity to ask questions, Vipond said the ultimate object is to get the spread of COVID-19 and the Delta variant under control, “because we’re in for a heap of trouble if we just continue to let it rip.”
Vipond was joined by a handful of other doctors and health experts on Monday afternoon.
The format was familiar — complete with the pre-briefing music that often came before provincial updates. Vipond provided an update on the number of cases, hospitalizations, ICU rates and deaths.
“We have had an 81.4 per cent increase in our ICU rates in the last week,” Vipond said. “We have had this exponential growth in the fourth wave.”
The panel took questions from journalists and other viewers, including questions the province wasn’t available for Monday, like the announcement that third doses will soon be available for immunocompromised people or those living in congregate care.
“As health-care workers in Alberta, we are continually fighting this battle,” said Bakshi. “As health-care workers, we will continue to show up for what we believe in, which is caring for patients.”