1st statement from Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health on RSV, flu season

Click to play video: 'Masking and messaging: What should Albertans do this time around?'
Masking and messaging: What should Albertans do this time around?
WATCH: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, masking was an issue that created questions and division. Now, with respiratory illnesses riding, Edmonton's medical officer of health is recommending you put your mask back on in indoor public settings. But getting Albertans to get onboard could be tough. Chris Chacon explains. – Nov 16, 2022

Alberta’s newly appointed top public health doctor released a statement about the rising number of respiratory viruses — flu, RSV and COVID-19 — circulating in the province.

Dr. Mark Joffe, who was named Alberta’s chief medical officer of health on Nov. 14, encouraged Albertans to get their flu shot and take other steps to reduce the spread.

He said Canada’s flu season usually mimics Australia’s, which has seen a severe respiratory virus season.

“In Australia, the highest rates of influenza disease were in children and teenagers, and children under 16 years of age accounted for the majority of influenza hospitalizations. Influenza can also have a severe impact on the elderly.

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“While most children, youth and adults recover from the flu without complications, some can get very sick and need to be treated in hospital,” Joffe said in an emailed statement.

Click to play video: 'AHS says Albertans should put masks on as respiratory illness spreads'
AHS says Albertans should put masks on as respiratory illness spreads

“We can expect to see similar outcomes in Alberta. Over the last few weeks, Alberta has seen an increase in reports of symptoms such as cough and fever in schools and daycares. We are monitoring the situation in schools closely,” Joffe’s statement continued.

“The province continues to transition back to longstanding practices to manage respiratory infections in general. That includes local public health officials notifying schools of outbreaks and giving them advice and support as needed.

“Transmission levels will fluctuate over time and between communities. We encourage Albertans to judge their risk at any point in time and take appropriate precautions.”

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Since being named the new interim CMOH, Albertans have not heard from Joffe.

Several hospital executives held news conferences on Tuesday, addressing the spike in children’s respiratory illnesses, high numbers of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), early onset of the flu season, the Stollery Children’s Hospital being at capacity and long waits at Alberta emergency rooms.

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Alberta Children’s Hospital taking action to expand ER capacity

The Edmonton Public School Board is also managing high absenteeism in schools with many children away sick. The board is contemplating asking the CMOH for specific advice and recommendations.

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“I encourage Albertans to take simple, daily actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses,” Joffe said, including:

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  • Stay home when feeling sick;
  • Make the choice to stay up to date on your vaccinations, and speak to a physician or other care provider if you have questions about options;
  • Wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask can help reduce the risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed. “Albertans should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not,” he wrote.
  • If possible, avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • Regularly clean hands with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds;
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands;
  • Maintain good respiratory etiquette by covering coughs and sneezes;
  • Avoid or limit time spent in crowded indoor places;
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items at home, especially when someone in your home is sick.

In a statement Wednesday, the City of Edmonton said: “City administration has not recommended consideration of a mask bylaw to city council recently. We are keeping an eye on the situation in Edmonton as cases of respiratory illness, COVID-19 and influenza rise.

“People are welcome to wear masks on transit and in city buildings, and since the most recent easing of health restrictions, we have been encouraging our employees to respect every person’s choice around mask wearing.”

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A spokesperson for the City of Calgary said it is “carefully monitoring public health advice to help keep employees and members of the public safe and will not be making a recommendation to reintroduce a masking mandate at this time.

“The province amended the Municipal Government Act to expressly limit the authority of a municipality to enact a bylaw requiring masking. Such a bylaw is only valid if approved by the minister of Municipal Affairs.

“Legislation does, however, permit the city to pass a bylaw requiring masking on or in city-owned property.

“The city will continue to monitor the situation carefully, and collaborate closely with our partners at Alberta Health Services to align with their recommendations.

“We are encouraging city of Calgary employees to help fight viruses at home and at work by washing their hands regularly, cleaning as they go, and supporting the use of face masks as a personal choice. We encourage everyone in Calgary to take personal health actions to limit the spread of respiratory illnesses.”

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Mask on or off? Mandatory face covering bylaw gone in Edmonton leaves people with choices to make

Joffe’s statement also included information about booking immunization appointments.

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Albertans can book flu shots or COVID-19 boosters through the Alberta Vaccine Booking System or by calling Health Link at 811.

Some pharmacies also offer walk-in vaccinations.

Joffe’s biography page on the Alberta Health Services website says his “diverse clinical experience includes his specialty practice in infectious diseases.” The Calgary native has worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton as well as at the Edmonton Sexually Transmitted Diseases Centre and the Edmonton Institution for Women.

Since becoming premier last month, Smith has said she would be replacing Hinshaw and finding new people to give her government advice on decisions related to public health.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she will find new health officials for province'
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says she will find new health officials for province

In a news release issued by the provincial government late Monday afternoon, Health Minister Jason Copping said Joffe “brings this wealth of experience and knowledge to the role of chief medical officer of health. I look forward to working with him.

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“I also wish to thank Dr. Deena Hinshaw for her service and dedication to Albertans through the past several years.”

The government noted Joffe will continue to work under his current contract with AHS and not receive any additional compensation for his new role.

In a news conference earlier Wednesday addressing the rising number of respiratory illnesses, Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley said Albertans deserved to hear updates and plans from the premier, health minister and CMOH.

“We’ve got school boards, for instance, here in Edmonton desperately calling on the provincial government and particularly the chief medical officer of health to provide more fulsome information on the state of outbreaks across the board, as well as specific recommendations for how best to keep our kids safe and also about what we can expect going forward. And we’re not getting that kind of information,” Notley said.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton Public School Board asks for health guidance'
Edmonton Public School Board asks for health guidance

“We have a serious infectious disease outbreak impacting our kids to the point that we have 12-hour lineups at children’s emergency rooms and we don’t seem to have anybody who thinks it’s their job to step up and address the matter.

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“No one is in charge. As a result, no one is responsible. No one is providing leadership. No one is protecting the health and safety of our kids across this province and that’s a complete failure of leadership.”

Notley also said the firing of Hinshaw and appointment of Joffe as the new interim CMOH sends a message.

“We have a chief medical officer of health who, although a very credible human being, is not actually even being paid to do the job. And he’s still doing his other complete job. So that sounds to me like we’ve got a government that doesn’t really value that role.

“Moreover, the previous chief medical officer of health was literally fired because they didn’t agree politically with the scientific evidence she was putting forward or trying to put forward,” Notley said.

“We have a new acting chief medical officer of health has actually has a gargantuan range of responsibilities in his current job who’s been given no time and no extra money to do this whole other job.”

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