COVID-19: Alberta’s eyes shifting to endemic response as Hinshaw sidesteps questions on Restriction Exemptions Program

WATCH: Alberta's top doctor believes province needs to move to endemic approach.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced today that the province is starting the process to shift to an endemic approach to COVID-19 while sidestepping questions about the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP).

Hinshaw referenced COVID-19 trends in other provinces which are farther ahead in the Omicron wave and where hospitalizations are declining as a reason for the upcoming change. She said she agrees with her colleagues who have publicly discussed an endemic approach, saying this is the direction the province needs to move towards when there are similar trends in Alberta’s acute-care system.

She also said provincial data shows Alberta is beginning to “turn a corner” with the fifth wave.

“COVID will not go away. There will continue to be impacts on our acute-care systems that will rise and fall with seasonality and new variants that may emerge. We cannot prevent all negative outcomes from COVID, and we must be ready to respond to new information,” said Hinshaw at a press conference on Thursday.

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The removal of restrictions will be a part of the endemic response and the province will continue to balance its response to minimize harms across all areas, according to Hinshaw. She also said vaccinations remain critically important to protect communities and ease the strain on hospitals and health-care workers.

Click to play video: '‘I continue to underscore that the healthcare system is under strain’: Hinshaw'
‘I continue to underscore that the healthcare system is under strain’: Hinshaw

“There has never been single right way to respond. But what is always true is that the actions that each of us take every day matter to our communities.”

Thursday wasn’t the first time Alberta’s chief medical officer of health predicted COVID-19 would become endemic.

“We manage many vaccine-preventable diseases in public health and needing to integrate our response into a sustainable approach going forward so that we have the capacity to look at COVID-19 as one of many infectious diseases rather than the dominant risk that we’ve had to navigate again prior to the introduction of highly effective vaccines,” Hinshaw said on June 29, 2021, when asked about the plan to move to handle COVID-19 as an endemic disease.

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On July 1, 2021, the province moved to Stage 3 of its reopening plan, lifting nearly all of its public health measures.

“This is going to be the best summer ever,” Premier Jason Kenney tweeted weeks before.

Cases rose precipitously, hospitalizations and ICU admissions set records, and then new public health measures and the REP came into effect on Sept. 20, 2021.

The measures came into effect after Hinshaw admitted the late July changes were premature.

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“Clearly, the move to endemic was too early,” the chief medical officer said on Sep. 9, 2021.

One Alberta doctor is warning that thinking COVID-19 could be like the flu could be misleading.

“Flu has never achieved endemicity,” Dr. Joe Vipod said. “It’s seasonally epidemic – it seasonally goes up and down.”

Vipond noted that tuberculosis and malaria are endemic in societies around the world.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Alberta’s top doctor believes it’s time to start moving to more endemic approach'
COVID-19: Alberta’s top doctor believes it’s time to start moving to more endemic approach

“They tend to just float around in societies, not really ever achieving that exponential growth or exponential decline,” he said. “No one would argue that there shouldn’t be severe efforts made to curtail their impacts because they have huge impacts in the society where they’re endemic.”

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The exponential nature of COVID-19’s growth has one researcher doubting it will reach endemicity after public health restrictions are lifted.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Calgary councillors exploring impacts if restriction exemption program is rescinded'
COVID-19: Calgary councillors exploring impacts if restriction exemption program is rescinded

“It either goes up or goes down exponentially. I cannot see under what conditions it can become endemic and be under a stable phase,” Dr. Malgorzata Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist and a researcher at the University of Calgary, said Thursday. “And I didn’t see anybody talking about endemicity who would provide a model showing under what conditions it will behave like this.

“So I don’t think that it’s possible that COVID will become endemic.”

Hinshaw also sidestepped questions about Premier Jason Kenney’s announcement that the REP could be lifted by the end of February.

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When asked about the reasoning behind this decision given the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the past two weeks, Hinshaw declined to comment.

“I’m afraid I’m not able to speak on behalf of the premier,” she said.

In response, the NDP criticized the government’s decision to hold a COVID-19 update when Hinshaw does not have any information about Kenney’s decision to lift the REP.

“Albertans want answers as to why the Premier continues to move the goalposts, and Dr. Deena Hinshaw doesn’t have those answers. That is the responsibility of the Premier, and he is abandoning his duty to Albertans once again,” said Health Critic David Shepherd in a press release.

“The Premier must address Albertans to present the data and advice from public health officials his cabinet is using to make critical decisions on public health orders, and allow professional public health officials to express their views without political interference.”

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw says she has ‘not eaten in a restaurant for more than 2 years’'
Hinshaw says she has ‘not eaten in a restaurant for more than 2 years’

The update comes after Hinshaw reported that 2,370 more COVID-19 cases were identified in the province in the past 24 hours out of 7,338 PCR tests. However, public health officials have previously noted that the true number of new COVID-19 cases is likely at least 10 times higher due to restrictions on who is eligible to receive a PCR test.

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Hinshaw also announced an update to the province’s quarantine recommendations. Effective immediately, asymptomatic and unvaccinated individuals who have had close contact with a confirmed case will only be required to stay at home for 10 days, down from 14 days that was previously recommended.

“As new evidence emerges, we will continue to review the appropriateness of the duration of the recommended quarantine period,” she said.

The update comes after Hinshaw announced 1,584 Albertans are currently in hospital due to COVID-19. Of those, 112 are in intensive care, up by six since Wednesday.

There were 16 additional COVID-19 deaths reported to the province over the previous 24 hours, however, a previous COVID-19 death was ruled to be unrelated to the virus upon further examination and has been removed from the total.

The number of Albertans whose deaths have been linked to COVID-19 rose to 3,690 on Thursday.

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw says she understands the confusions Albertans are facing amid changing COVID messaging'
Hinshaw says she understands the confusions Albertans are facing amid changing COVID messaging

Edmonton mayor urges keeping REP

The City of Edmonton meanwhile is looking at its options to keep the Restrictions Exemption Program if and when the province decides to officially scrap it.

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Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he’s asked administration to see if and how Edmonton can continue it.

“We are exploring what authorities do we have to continue the exemption program at city owned facilities. Can we expand it to other non-city owned facilities and businesses?” Sohi said during a virtual news conference Thursday.

The mayor believes lifting restrictions too fast will have consequences and is urging the province to keep the measures “a little bit longer.”

“It is our fundamental responsibility to continue to take precautions and continue to follow the restrictions until we are behind this pandemic,” Sohi said.

“I am worried about the safety and well-being of Edmontonians, particularly those who are vulnerable, and kids who have not been able to get vaccinated.”

He said the city has not been consulted by the province on any plans to remove health measures.

“They may reach out to us before these restrictions are lifted, but at this time, I don’t know,” he explained.

–with files from Nicole Stillger and Adam Toy, Global News


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