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Alberta’s ‘open for summer’ plan set trajectory of COVID’s fourth wave, Hinshaw now says

Alberta’s chief medical health officer now says the province’s controversial lifting of all COVID-19 public-health restrictions in early July set the trajectory for the explosive fourth wave that has pushed its health-care system to the breaking point.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw also said in  a Zoom meeting with Primary Care Network physicians on Monday night that she “deeply” regrets her part in contributing to a narrative that “COVID’s over.”

In May, Alberta Premier Jason 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 by July 1.

All restrictions were lifted, including a ban on indoor social gatherings and the general indoor provincial mask mandate, though the province retained isolation requirements for confirmed cases of COVID-19 and some protective measures in continuing care settings.

That set the course for Alberta’s massive fourth wave, Hinshaw acknowledged in the meeting with physicians Monday night.

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

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

Reported cases of COVID-19 in Alberta skyrocketed in August and September, with the province now leading the country in daily new COVID cases and total active cases.

As of Monday, there were 18,395 active cases across Alberta, the highest nationwide. By comparison, Ontario, a province with more than three times the population, has one-third the number of active cases.

It has put the greatest strain on Alberta’s health-care system to date, with about 800 people being treated in hospital as of Monday — 200 of them in intensive care units. Internal modelling suggesting the situation could get worse for weeks to come. 

Modelling by Alberta Health Services (AHS) obtained by CBC News suggests that, by early October, there could be as many as 365 patients in need of the province’s current 286 ICU beds. 

Of those not in ICU, 74.1 per cent were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, as of Friday. Of those in ICU, 91.2 per cent were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Many doctors have warned the health-care system is already buckling under the weight of current ICU demands.

Among them, 67 infectious disease physicians signed an open letter to Kenney on Monday, calling for stronger actions to curb the spread of COVID-19, in particular restrictions on non-immunized individuals to access non-essential public, indoor spaces.

“We have a crisis, that’s clear,” Hinshaw said Monday night. “I think everyone’s well aware of that.”

Hinshaw also said the messaging that emerged from the decision has made it difficult to reintroduce public health measures as the province.

“I feel very responsible for the 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,'” Hinshaw said.

“That has had repercussions … and I deeply regret how that has played out.”

Kenney has repeatedly rejected calls for vaccination requirements, which are increasingly common in other provinces when it comes to accessing bars, restaurants, gyms and other public venues.

CBC News requested comment from the premier’s office Monday to the physicians’ letter. In response, Alberta Health provided a link to a YouTube video in which Health Minister Tyler Shandro discussed vaccine mandates at a news conference last week.

The crisis has also led to reduced levels of care and cancelled surgeries for non-COVID patients.

Albertans awaiting procedures such as kidney transplants and brain cancer operations have recently seen their surgeries postponed.

AHS said Monday all elective surgeries and most outpatient procedures in Calgary will again be postponed this week, as staff are redeployed to intensive care duties.

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