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

As Alberta hospitals struggle to keep up with rising COVID-19 case numbers, the province’s chief medical officer of health has suggested the surge is because most health restrictions were removed as part of the government’s “Open for Summer” plan.

The changes took place over three stages between July 1 and Aug. 16.

The plan saw Alberta lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, including ending asymptomatic testing and masking in most settings, no longer requiring mandatory isolation for close contacts of positive cases, and the end of contacts being notified of exposure.

Read more: Alberta to continue COVID-19 testing beyond Sept. 27 deadline

“I don’t believe that that contact tracing change had a huge impact on our trajectory,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said while speaking with the Calgary Primary Health Care Network on Monday night.

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“I think that trajectory was set when we removed all the public health restrictions at the beginning of July.”

Hinshaw said looking at the experiences of all of the different provinces across the country, “those that have kept in some base level restrictions to manage the interactions and close contacts are the ones that are not seeing the significant impacts.

“And those of us that removed them are the ones that saw the significant, very steep rise in some of these acute care impacts.”

Read more: Alberta keeping COVID-19 measures for another six weeks

On July 28, Alberta announced a number of changes to the province’s COVID-19 approach, which would have seen widespread COVID-19 testing come to an end on Aug. 16.

However, on Aug. 13, the province announced it would push that deadline back to at least Sept. 27.

Click to play video: 'What will happen as more COVID-19 patients fill Alberta ICUs?' What will happen as more COVID-19 patients fill Alberta ICUs?

What will happen as more COVID-19 patients fill Alberta ICUs?

The Monday night meeting came on the same day COVID-19 intensive care admissions reached an all-time high in Alberta.

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Numbers released by the province show 198 Albertans with COVID-19 were receiving intensive care — surpassing the previous record of 182 admissions in May.

Alberta Health Services, as of Monday morning, said the number was even higher, at 202.

The health-care provider also said intensive care capacity was operating at 90 per cent with surge spaces added. Without additional surge beds, capacity would be at 148 per cent.

Read more: More than 800 Albertans now hospitalized with COVID-19 as 4,740 new cases identified since Friday

The high number of patients needing intensive care has prompted AHS to convert some surgical recovery beds into COVID spaces and redeploy staff — as a result, many operations have been cancelled.

In the Edmonton zone, up to 70 per cent of surgeries set to take place this week are being rescheduled, including elective surgeries and outpatient procedures, and only priority cancer, urgent and emergent surgeries are going ahead, AHS said on Monday.

The move in the Edmonton area came after AHS last week postponed scheduled elective surgeries and outpatient procedures at Calgary hospitals.

“Alberta is in a significant crisis state right now, there’s no dancing around that,” Hinshaw said Monday.

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She added that, at the same time, the Delta variant caught many health-care experts unaware.

Read more: Alberta doctors, chambers of commerce push for COVID-19 vaccine passport

For weeks, physicians across Alberta have been calling on the Alberta government to introduce a vaccine passport system like other provinces have, which requires citizens to show proof of their immunizations — typically via an app — in order to access public places and events like restaurants, gyms and concerts.

The Alberta government has refused to do so.

Click to play video: 'Alberta health minister grilled over COVID-19 vaccine passport hesitancy' Alberta health minister grilled over COVID-19 vaccine passport hesitancy

Alberta health minister grilled over COVID-19 vaccine passport hesitancy

On Monday, 65 infectious diseases physicians released a public letter calling for immediate access restrictions at indoor non-essential businesses and services.

The group pointed out that more than 90 per cent of COVID-19 patients in Alberta ICUs are not vaccinated or only partially so. The doctors said at the current rate, the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to ICU will double every two weeks.

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The doctors warned the health-care system is “on the precipice of collapse,” and stronger public health measures are once again needed.

Read more: Alberta doctors, chambers of commerce push for COVID-19 vaccine passport

The open letter was sent to Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Hinshaw.

“Thank you for still talking to me, I know there’s a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of exhaustion out there,” she said in acknowledgement when joining Monday’s livestream.

“Certainly, clinical colleagues I hear from (are) like, ‘What were you thinking?!?’” Hinshaw said with animation. “‘Why did you say we can go to endemic in July?’”

Last week, Hinshaw admitted the province moved too quickly to switch from treating COVID-19 as an urgent pandemic issue to an endemic disease — that is, one that will never be eradicated from society and needs to be dealt with on an ongoing basis, similar HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted infections such as endemic syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Read more: COVID-19 ICU admissions slam Alberta hospitals; Hinshaw says ‘the move to endemic was too early’

“It was a very abrupt transition. I know it landed very, very heavily for many people.

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“It felt like a 180 degree switch, which doesn’t help people understand that endemic doesn’t mean we’ve dusted off our hands and we’re ignoring this,” Hinshaw said.

She said the changes announced in late July were made by “looking at the evidence that was available at the time,” but were premature, adding her team saw evidence indicating the move was made too early in early August.

“But of course, the expectations did not match reality, and very shortly after we started that endemic path, we could see already from that comparison with actuals in the modelling data within a couple of weeks, that we weren’t seeing the decoupling (of case rates versus hospitalization numbers) we expected and really had to shift and walk back about, ‘OK, we’re not ready yet, need to take more time.’

“And as everyone knows, we’ve needed to put additional measures in place.”

Last week, the province re-introduced mandatory masking inside public places.

Hinshaw said Monday she feels responsible for a “narrative that has made it more complicated to try to put additional public health measures in place.”

“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 and I deeply regret how that has played out.”

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Click to play video: 'Pandemic to endemic: Dr. Hinshaw shares evidence that led to shift in COVID-19 approach' Pandemic to endemic: Dr. Hinshaw shares evidence that led to shift in COVID-19 approach

Pandemic to endemic: Dr. Hinshaw shares evidence that led to shift in COVID-19 approach – Sep 3, 2021

The two-hour-long meeting of doctors on Monday night was livestreamed on YouTube, but has since been made private.

Hinshaw spoke for about 35 minutes, giving a presentation on COVID-19 in Alberta.

— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News, Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED, and Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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