Alberta, Saskatchewan COVID-19 spike a lesson for rest of Canada: experts

For 19 months, provinces across Canada have been coming up with ways to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

In and out of waves, each province has handled COVID-19 differently and has seen ups and downs. Now in a Delta-driven fourth wave, two provinces are in the national spotlight: Alberta and Saskatchewan.

This summer, the two western jurisdictions eased nearly all protective measures as vaccine rates picked up. However since then, inoculation rates have slowed and new infections have pushed hospitals to the brink.

Both provinces are preparing to back-pedal, but you can’t “just magically put this genie back in the bottle,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf, interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Read more: ‘Getting dangerous’: Calls grow for federal action amid Canada’s nurse shortage

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Neudorf feels this is a teachable moment for Canadians.

“Well, as we’ve learned throughout these other subsequent waves, the sooner you act when you see a wave happening, the better your response is going to be,” he said.

What’s happening in Alberta?

Both provinces have experienced surges in COVID-19 cases since lifting protective measures in the summer. On Tuesday, Alberta reported 1,434 new cases and nine deaths. In Saskatchewan, 508 new cases were logged and two deaths were reported.

On Monday, Alberta’s top doctor admitted the summer relaxation was a mistake — one she “deeply regrets.”

“I think that trajectory was set when we removed all the public health restrictions at the beginning of July,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in a call with the Calgary Primary Health Care Network.

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“Because whether or not it was my intention, what was heard at the end of July was: ‘COVID’s over, we can walk away and ignore it.’ And that has had repercussions.”

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw says Alberta’s ‘Open For Summer’ plan was premature, led to spike in COVID-19 cases' Hinshaw says Alberta’s ‘Open For Summer’ plan was premature, led to spike in COVID-19 cases

Hinshaw says Alberta’s ‘Open For Summer’ plan was premature, led to spike in COVID-19 cases

As Alberta made the move to loosen up in the summer, the province’s weekly average in new daily cases was declining.

On July 1, Alberta unveiled its “Open for Summer” plan, which decided to ease measures, like ending asymptomatic testing and no longer notifying close contacts of exposure.

At that time, the weekly average was 57 new cases a day. That number continued to decline until July 22, when the average shifted to 61 new cases over seven days.

On Aug. 1, the weekly average moved to 178 new cases per day; by Sept. 1, that weekly average was at 1,082 new cases a day.

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Read more: Alberta’s top doctor says ‘Open for Summer’ plan set stage for 4th wave of COVID-19

Dr. Paul Parks, president of emergency medicine at the Alberta Medical Association and an emergency medicine physician in Medicine Hat, told Global News he’s seeing “the regular onslaught” of COVID-19 patients coming in, the majority of them unvaccinated.

“Thankfully, lots of them are well enough that they can be sent home,” he said. “But more and more now are needing to be hospitalized, so our COVID wards are filling up.”

To deal with the influx, Parks said his hospital is cancelling or postponing surgeries – a move other hospitals across the country have done multiple times during the pandemic.

Read more: Places of worship granted mask exemption in new Alberta restrictions

While the mask mandate has returned to Alberta, albeit with exemptions, Parks said it’s far from enough.

“We haven’t really implemented any really strategic targeted public health measures that will stop the onslaught and slow the number of cases we have right now,” he said.

“Other than a mask mandate and asking people nicely to not congregate or drink after 10 p.m., Alberta hasn’t done anything to slow this curve.”

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What about Saskatchewan?

Things have taken a turn for the worst in neighbouring Saskatchewan, as well.

On July 11, the province decided to ease public health measures, including indoor mask wearing, but the government said unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people should still consider face coverings.

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At that time, the weekly average for daily case counts sat at a meager 43.

The rolling average continued to dip in the days after, but began to climb back up by the end of the month. On Aug. 1, 55 new cases were reported daily over a week; on Sept. 1, the weekly average was at 263 new cases a day.

Read more: Saskatchewan sets another daily record for COVID-19 cases

On Monday, Saskatchewan re-enacted an emergency order to deal with a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations. The order, which ended July 11, gives the government the power to redirect health-care workers to areas experiencing pressure from the virus.

Last Friday, Premier Scott Moe introduced a new public health order to help calm the spike: Unvaccinated people who are in close contact with a COVID-19 case must self-isolate for 10 days, while a vaccinated person need only self-monitor.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine told Global News recently that he believed the spike was a direct result of the July 11 reopening.

Since then, he said, vaccination rates have slowed and many Saskatchewan residents attended group events during the summer – allowing Delta to spread.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan sees worst-ever COVID-19 case count' Saskatchewan sees worst-ever COVID-19 case count

Saskatchewan sees worst-ever COVID-19 case count

For Neudorf, this moment in time reinforces that the pandemic is an ongoing threat.

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“Advice that might have been given months ago has to be re-evaluated in light of what the pandemic is throwing at us right now,” he said. “Fighting this pandemic requires a layered response, or what some jurisdictions have called the ‘Swiss cheese model,’ recognizing that every restriction or protection that we put in place has holes in it.… You need multiple layers of protection to get a handle on this.”

Vaccines are an important layer, he said, but relying solely on immunization right now is not a sound strategy as vaccines don’t provide 100 per cent protection or prevent transmission. Other layers needed include mandatory masking in public spaces, restricting non-essential gatherings and proof of immunization.

“Certain types of activities have a far higher risk of transmission, either leading to a superspreader event or exposing people who are more vulnerable in our community.… We should be trying to do all we can to make sure that’s a safe environment, and that includes immunization of the workers who work with those people and greater care with infection control in those situations,” he said.

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“So those are the kinds of lessons that we need to draw. Some of those things aren’t available in Alberta and Saskatchewan right now, coupled with lower immunization rates, and that’s just created an environment for a rapid explosion of COVID cases again.”

Read more: September a ‘critical time’ for Canada’s COVID-19 fight, experts say

Both Neudorf and Parks want their provincial governments to act quickly.

For Parks, his hospital is beginning to transfer patients around Alberta to free up space, but he fears if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the health-care system will be pushed past the brink.

“That’s why we’re begging our leadership to do something to implement targeted public health measures,” he said. “And we’re asking the public to do their part, to wear masks, avoid big groups and get vaccinated. We need help.”

–with files from Heather Yourex-West, Karen Bartko, David Giles and Nathaniel Dove.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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