As COVID-19 transmission rises in Alberta, there are growing concerns messaging from the provincial government could harm efforts to blunt the curve and protect hospitals from even further strain.
Transmission, wastewater levels and hospitalizations are all increasing, but politicians and health officials have yet to label the surge a “sixth wave,” despite statements from doctors and scientists that it is here.
During a news conference Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health acknowledged the rising metrics and noted positivity rates had generally plateaued (albeit at high levels with a seven-day average of 26.6 per cent).
However, Dr. Deena Hinshaw stopped short of committing to the idea Alberta is in a sixth wave.
“The magnitude of this rise, how long it will last — those are questions we don’t know the answers to yet,” she said.
“Whatever we term it, whether it’s called a sixth wave or whether we’re talking about just the rise in transmission we’ve seen, we certainly all know the kinds of things that can help protect ourselves and those around us.”
This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Noel Gibney, professor emeritus of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta.
“It’s dangerous because it’s stopping the messaging getting out there that … COVID has not gone away,” he said.
“I think the messaging we’re getting from the province is trying to downplay the significance of where we are.… If people don’t fully understand where we are — that indeed we’re in the early stages of a sixth wave, where the numbers could actually be higher than anything else that we’ve experienced before — I think that that places the public in a bad place.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations didn’t have time to drop significantly after the fifth wave before they started rising again.
And Gibney said hospitals — particularly those in Calgary and Edmonton — are under significant pressure.
The latest data shows, as of Monday, there were 1,053 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 48 in intensive care.
Despite all this, both Health Minister Jason Copping and Premier Jason Kenney have said recently they don’t anticipate hospitals will be strained to a point that necessitates the reintroduction of public health measures.
“We may well see hospitalization numbers that potentially exceed anything that we’ve seen to date. And so for the government to say we’re not under pressure, I think, is misleading,” said Gibney.
Other experts agree on the need for a clear declaration the sixth wave has arrived.
“I think it does matter because it signals to the public that this isn’t over — we still need to take steps to protect ourselves and to protect our loved ones and to protect our health-care system,” said Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta.
“By not acknowledging what’s going on, I think you invite the public to not acknowledge it, too, and that’s not the role of the government. A government should be leading. They should be leading this conversation and they’re not.”
The message that is coming from the Alberta government, according to Caulfield, is that people need to make their own risk assessments. But with a dramatic reduction in reporting and surveillance, he said, there’s no longer enough data to do that.
“I think Albertans are kind of left in a pretty confused state,” he said, noting he believes many Albertans are frustrated.
“[They] would love to have more clarity about what is needed right now from a public health perspective, and I also think they would like to have more clarity on where the government thinks COVID is going in this province.”
Part of the problem, according to Caulfield, is the Alberta government is allowing politics to drive these health policy decisions.
“I think the Alberta government, and to be honest, I think there are many governments around the world that have, from a political perspective, painted themselves into a corner,” he said.
“They don’t want to sound like there’s any kind of retreat. And I get that from a political perspective. But these decision should be driven by public health needs and what the numbers actually say.”
Meanwhile, Gibney said now is the time to reconsider a mask mandate, encourage booster shots, increase PCR testing and improve access to antiviral treatment in an effort to protect as many people as possible.
“COVID isn’t gone. COVID is not endemic. COVID is still very much a pandemic.”