Alberta’s plan to lift all pandemic restrictions and precautions appears to have been based on a scenario rooted more in wishful optimism and political expediency than obvious scientific evidence, say experts in infectious diseases and pandemic modelling.
But they say the problem was compounded as Premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, failed to reimpose measures despite the steady rise of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations through the summer.
“At this point in the pandemic, there is no excuse for this sort of negligence at the government level,” said Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta.
“The bottom line is that people are going to die and it is really tragic — but it is also infuriating, because this was all entirely preventable.”
In late May, Kenney promised the “best summer ever” for Albertans as he announced the government’s three-part plan to be the first and most open province in Canada, with no restrictions by July 1.
Then in late July, Hinshaw announced the province would end testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation, a move that alarmed doctors and infectious disease experts across the country.
Based on U.K. data
According to Kenney and Hinshaw, the moves were based on data from the United Kingdom showing that high vaccination rates had “decoupled” infections from severe outcomes, which in turn had resulted in much lower rates of hospitalization.
But both Schwartz and Dean Karlen, a physics professor and expert in modelling at the University of Victoria, said Alberta’s reliance on the U.K. experience made little sense.
“You don’t just use one jurisdiction to base your best knowledge [on]. Especially you don’t choose the one that has the most optimistic future,” said Karlen, a member of British Columbia’s independent COVID-19 Modelling Group, which has been publicly releasing modelling information about Alberta.
“You really should be looking at multiple jurisdictions.”
You really should be looking at multiple jurisdictions.– Dean Karlen, University of Victoria modelling expert
Karlen said it was evident the U.K. was an outlier, because major outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. were being followed by predictable increases in hospitalizations.
“The preponderance of data was not supporting any kind of decoupling like that,” Karlen said.
Hinshaw and Health Minister Tyler Shandro declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Perplexing failure to act
Karlen said Alberta’s assumptions were based on the decline of the alpha variant of COVID-19, despite evidence that the more contagious delta variant was surging and would become dominant.
He also said the U.K. had a higher, more uniform rate of vaccination. Alberta, in contrast, had several pockets with very low vaccination rates.
Because most of the new infections in Alberta would be among the unvaccinated — and because delta’s effect on health is more severe — there was no reason to assume these people wouldn’t be hospitalized, Karlen said.
Alberta’s COVID-19 statistics bear that reasoning out.
As of July 1, there were 1,055 active COVID-19 cases, 165 people in hospital, a test positivity rate of 1.17 per cent and 2,301 total deaths.
On Aug. 1, just days after Hinshaw had announced plans to scale back testing, tracing and isolation, there were 1,655 active cases, 90 people in hospital and a positivity rate of 2.39 per cent
On Sept. 1, the numbers showed how the virus was spreading: 12,290 active cases, 465 people in hospital, a positivity rate of 10.8 per cent and 2,383 deaths.
Throughout the pandemic, the Kenney government consistently sought to limit what it viewed as unnecessary restrictions on the public and on businesses.
But the delta variant, Schwartz said, “doesn’t obey political wishes, which is essentially what this was.”
Return to restrictions
On Sept. 3, with more than 1,000 new infections a day and the province’s intensive care units at 95 per cent occupancy, Kenney, Shandro and Hinshaw announced the reimposition of restrictions, such as mandatory masking in all indoor spaces, and introduced a $100 gift card as an incentive for people to get vaccinated.
The government has also stated that mandatory, versus recommended, isolation measures will continue for people who have tested positive.
Schwartz said the Alberta government should have been more responsive to the situation and acted sooner.
“I think that it is possible that [Hinshaw] made a really bad mistake, clearly under political pressure, in late July when pushing for the ending of testing, tracing and isolation,” Schwartz said.
“But really, the critical failure was not changing course and not instituting public health interventions much earlier.”