Canada’s top doctor says Alberta’s COVID-19 response is an example of the kind of consequences a jurisdiction can face if it reopens too soon.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told reporters at a news conference on Thursday that COVID surges can be tamed if provinces act quick enough, but acknowledged that vaccines take time — suggesting Alberta has run out of it for the time being.
“We’re always learning through this pandemic, and navigating through the next months is not going to be an easy thing,” she said.
“If measures are let go of too quickly, and vaccination rates aren’t going up fast enough … you’re giving room for this virus to accelerate if your vaccine coverage isn’t moving up faster than your reopening or easing measures.”
Tam’s comments come amid a dire surge in cases and hospitalizations in Alberta. The province, which eased nearly all public health restrictions as part of its July 1 “Open for Summer” plan, is in the national spotlight for its current handling of the fourth wave.
On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney apologized to Albertans for his decision to peel back protections. He reintroduced a state of emergency and several public health measures including a vaccine passport and mandatory work-from-home rules, unless an employer determines a physical presence is required.
Kenney said his government had “reluctantly” backtracked on its commitment to “stay open for good” and not bring in a vaccine passport because the pandemic’s fourth wave is pushing the capacity of Alberta’s health-care system to the limit.
At the time of Alberta’s “Open for Summer” plan, cases were trending down but picked back up at the end of July.
When asked about Alberta’s situation, Tam urged other provinces to remain “highly vigilant of this virus.”
She put it plainly: “Don’t be complacent.”
“When you don’t have that many cases, the simpler measures such as masking, particularly indoors, spacing and other measures … can be done now to prevent an upsurge that can overwhelm the health system,” she said.
“If you are experiencing these kinds of surges, vaccines won’t be fast enough. You got to add on the additional measures.”
Party leaders throw shots over Alberta crisis
The situation in Alberta was a hot topic on the campaign trail Thursday, as well.
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Opposition party leaders took aim at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for calling an election amid the fourth wave.
Speaking in Toronto, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Trudeau a “failure.” He also directed criticism at Kenney.
“When we talk about leadership, the Conservatives have absolutely failed, there’s no question about it. Mr. Kenney is a failure in leadership and the people of Alberta are suffering, sadly, because of that failure,” he said.
“Mr. Trudeau is a failure as well. Let’s not forget, he called an election. He decided, knowing full well with all the evidence we had — there wasn’t a potential fourth wave, there was for sure a fourth wave going to happen — and he decided to call an election instead of continuing to help people out. That is a colossal failure of leadership.”
In Nova Scotia, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole danced around questions about Alberta and support for Kenney, but said provinces need more help than Trudeau is offering.
“Throughout this crisis, all the provinces have tried to make the balance between public health paramount and balancing off the economic needs,” he said.
“All provinces have shifted and adjusted based on the various waves of the pandemic, but what the provinces have not had is a consistent and reliant partner in Ottawa. Mr. Trudeau fights with people – I will fight for Canadians.”
In Montreal, Trudeau said his government has sent billions in aid to help with pandemic support, but said it’s not his job to “judge, or criticize, or certainly tell” the provinces what to do.
He suggested that if Alberta introduced a vaccine mandate sooner, like other provinces, the situation might have been different.
“Our job is to encourage, to support financially. We’ve sent billions of dollars to the provinces over the past year to help with health care, to help with back-to-school, to help with supporting science, to help with testing … I think what Canadians see in this is that leadership matters, at whatever level,” he said.
“The choices we make on who to elect to lead the government at a time of crisis, whether it’s a provincial level or at a federal level, dictate how we’re going to do.”
At the end of July, Canada’s top doctors criticized Alberta’s easing of COVID-19 measures, which included ending asymptomatic testing and no longer notifying close contacts of exposure.
Tam said on July 30 she wanted people to continue isolating, get tested for COVID-19 and inform their close contacts even if it was no longer required.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s chief deputy public health officer, added at the time that he worried the consequences of Alberta’s decision could spread across the country.
“Everyone is alive to the fact that there could be, as they say, ‘knock-on effects’ to the other provinces and territories with travel within Canada.”