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Fighting for air filters in schools showed me why Alberta needs an unfiltered public health office

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This column is an opinion by Paul Lu, a university professor in Edmonton. For more information about CBC’s Alberta election 2023 opinion series, visit the My Priority home page.

For problems that require deep expertise, we need to have independent voices that can speak freely. Auditors general, for example, have great freedom to investigate and report on government operations and spending. 

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid crisis have shown the need for a fully independent officer of public health whose recommendations are transparent and provided without political interference.

In the fall of 2021, I learned this firsthand when I joined other parents to advocate for high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in Edmonton’s school classrooms.

As parents, we were concerned about our children spending hours in a classroom, eating lunch maskless. We wanted multiple layers of protection against COVID-19, influenza and air pollution, such as wildfire smoke. Like thousands of Alberta families, we already had HEPA filters in our homes.

As a professor, I have privileged access to the unvarnished opinion of experts at my university and am used to seeking them out for interdisciplinary research. Therefore, it was natural to seek out experts in air filtration from engineering, and experts in COVID-19 from medicine. 

Not all of the experts that I spoke with agreed with the cost-benefit of HEPA filters, nor did they completely agree with each other. Some experts were, to my surprise, concerned that HEPA filters might increase infection rates. Then I reached out to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and asked for a clear statement of the case for HEPA filters

Ultimately, thanks to the advocacy of many parents, the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) allocated $6 million to install air purifying units at all 213 of its schools. Now, a year after rolling out the filters, there is growing evidence of the many benefits of improved indoor air quality for students. 

Still, some school boards in Alberta continue to resist installing even donated HEPA filters.

Navigating a complicated world

When there are different points of view and complicated evidence, the ability to hear directly and fully from experts is paramount. 

Politicians and trustees still make the decisions, but let us hire the right people and give them the independence to inform the public. There is a larger debate on what we want from our public health experts, but let us start with the premise that these experts should be transparent in their recommendations and reasoning.

On the topic of HEPA filters, there was no clear, public statement from the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) of Alberta on whether air filtration could be done properly and effectively.  In contrast, the federal Public Health Agency of Canada included air filtration, citing ASHRAE, in its public recommendations  and infographics.

It was easy for some school leaders to delay action when there was a lack of clear guidance from higher-level officials. The lack of a clear position from the CMOH’s office made it hard for our group of parents to advocate for HEPA filters. That expertise vacuum was a barrier.

Therefore, there needs to be a revamped office of the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) in Alberta with its independence enshrined in legislation. I am not an expert on the details of the Auditor General Act but I hope the voting public can agree that we need a CPHO that is at least as independent as the auditor general. 

The goal of an independent CPHO is not to support any one point of view.

Across Canada and the world, there have been vastly different approaches taken by chief medical officers and public health officials. The introduction and removal of limits on public gatherings, for example, varied from province to province early on in the pandemic. I supported some of these approaches, and I have been dismayed by other decisions. 

Politicians often say that they are following the advice of public health officials, but it is important for the public to see the actual recommendations directly and in a timely fashion.

When an auditor general finds examples of waste in government, neighbours can disagree on how to hold the government accountable, but it should not be possible for the government to claim “cabinet privilege” over that report.

Let actual cabinet discussions be private, but let the recommendations of the CPHO be public.  Freedom of information requests and lawsuits are too slow in a fast-changing emergency. 

Future pandemics and epidemics will require a strong CPHO. Our elected officials need access to that expertise, but the public also needs to see the unvarnished recommendations without government interference.


My Priority

What’s the one thing that means the most to you in terms of the provincial election and why is that? We recruited over a dozen residents from across Alberta to answer that question. Read their opinion pieces as they’re published at cbc.ca/opinionproject.

Keep in mind, these pieces should not be taken as endorsements of any particular political party by either the writers or the CBC. They are expressions of the writers’ points of view, and a look at how those opinions came to be formed.

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