Canada’s top doctors say Alberta’s decision to end isolation requirements for those who test positive for COVID-19, or who have been in close contact with someone who has, could have ripple effects across the country.
“I firmly believe that quarantine and isolation can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in light of the spread of the Delta variant,” Theresa Tam, the country's chief public health officer, said Friday during a news briefing in Ottawa.
She urged people to continue isolating, get tested for COVID-19 and inform their close contacts even if it is no longer required.
Alberta announced earlier this week that close contacts of positive cases are no longer being notified of exposure by contact tracers, nor are they required to isolate. The government has also ended asymptomatic testing.
As of Aug. 16, individuals who test positive won't be legally required to isolate either, although it will still be recommended. Isolation hotels will close, and quarantine supports will end.
During the height of the third wave, Alberta led Canada and the United States in per capita COVID-19 cases. Infections are now rising again in the province with the Delta variant, first identified in India, dominating.
Vaccination rates are also lagging. About 75 per cent of eligible Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine and 65 per cent are fully immunized.
That means there are hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated people in Alberta, Tam said, creating the potential for large COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks.
“The bottom line is get vaccinated. There’s still a ways to go in Alberta."
The consequences of Alberta’s decision could spread beyond provincial boundaries, added Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer.
“Everyone is alive to the fact that there could be, as they say, 'knock-on effects' to the other provinces and territories with travel within Canada,” he said.
Local leaders and health-care providers across Canada have been highly critical ofAlberta's decision.
Dr. Andrew Boozary of the University of Toronto said Alberta's decision to drop public health measures while it faces lower vaccination rates, growing cases, and a mutating virus sets the entire country behind.
"It just really appears as a cruel policy experiment for far too many Albertans and a cruel policy experiment that has far-reaching effects across the country," said Bozary.
"This is a pandemic that requires a global response and, in our own country, it's going to require provinces working in concert, co-ordinating their responses."
Saskatchewan's requirement that positive cases must self-isolate expired July 11 when other restrictions there were lifted. But the government said people who are infected are asked to isolate and can still be ordered to do so by a medical health officer.
Lisa Glover, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health, said in a statement that health officers also have the authority to act in Alberta if "an unacceptable or significant risk" is posed.
She said the province is enhancing how it monitors COVID-19 and it will review its approach if there is too much pressure on hospitals.
Also Friday, protesters in Calgary and Edmonton called for public-health measures based in evidence. Many expressed concern for children returning to school in the fall, especially those under 12 who are not eligible for vaccinations.
In an open letter to Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the Canadian Paediatric Society also spoke to the vulnerability of that age group and urged her to think twice about lifting isolation and testing requirements.
The letter called the move an "unnecessary and risky gamble."
“Dropping these public health measures, especially when we are in such a delicate phase of recovery, has the potential to worsen the spread of the virus and could jeopardize future recovery plans and supports," the letter said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2021.
—With files from Julia Peterson in Regina
Kelly Geraldine Malone and Alanna Smith, The Canadian Press