COVID-19: As Alberta prepares to peel back public health measures, doctors offer advice

Alberta is on the brink of moving into the third and final stage of the province’s reopening plan.

On Thursday, indoor social gatherings will again be allowed, large outdoor gatherings can take place and some businesses, such as live music venues and nightclubs, will be able to reopen their doors. There will no longer be capacity limits.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Alberta public health measures to end on July 1

Nearly all public health measures brought in because of COVID-19 will be lifted across the province, including the provincial mask mandate, though masks will still be required in acute care facilities, continuing care centres and in public transit vehicles, taxis and rideshares.

ATU Local 569 President Steve Bradshaw said there are still some questions about whether those masking rules apply to transit centres and other transit properties, but he is on board with the targeted public health measure.

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“It’s become clear to us that masks are probably the second-most effective barrier to transmission of the virus, behind only vaccinations,” he said.

“We will encourage people to wear their masks.”

READ MORE: Edmonton’s mandatory mask bylaw will end when Alberta enters Stage 3 on July 1

Bradshaw said operators have never been tasked with mask enforcement, saying that is a matter for peace and bylaw officers.

COVID-19 case numbers have plummeted in the province in recent weeks, thanks in large part to vaccinations.

Dr. Sean van Diepen, a professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, said case numbers and hospitalization numbers are “really encouraging right now.”

“The clear downturn in the number of cases has really lowered the risk for transmission within the community, so I think it’s a really good time to start moving back on some of the health-care measures,” he said, adding it would be important to be nimble and reinstitute measures if more cases of the Delta or Delta Plus variant are identified.

Van Diepen had two pieces of advice for Albertans as they prepare for reopening: don’t be lulled into a sense of security because of the low numbers if you only have one dose of vaccine, and do what you can to minimize your risk.

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“Little things like continuing masking in the indoors if possible, especially with people who may be at intermediate or higher risk of the COVID(-19) variant. I’m going to continue to wear a mask indoors and people can make that decision.”

He said his family is slowly adapting to the new normal, meeting with friends in small groups outside instead of having indoor gatherings and not travelling outside of the city just yet.

Alberta Health Services said a number of COVID-19 units in the Edmonton have closed and been returned to their original use.

Dr. Neeja Bakshi, a COVID-19 unit physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, said the unit there will be shutting down in the coming days.

“We wanted to make sure we were maximizing the space for all patients that were coming in,” she said.

“There’s a little bit of apprehension, but I do think that with vaccination rates and where we’re going right now, it is the right move.”

However, Bakshi said she is concerned about the removal of the mask mandate.

“We don’t have everybody vaccinated yet and we know even with the second dose of vaccine, you require two weeks before you’re considered fully immunized,” she said.

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“We don’t know who’s vaccinated. We don’t know who could potentially be carrying the variant.”

Bakshi recommends Albertans do a point-of-care assessment to determine what they are comfortable with as the province reopens.

“I’m hopeful most Albertans will continue to do things that seem common sense: washing your hands all the time, wearing a mask in a crowded place – I still think that’s a really good thing as we saw we didn’t have any influenza in the fall (and) we had really low rates of respiratory illnesses in children, and masking was the thing that helped with that,” she said.

“I think as we move into this next phase and turn to reopening, everybody is going to go at their own pace.”

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