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Now is the right time for Alberta to reduce restrictions: Copping


Several doctors in the province told Postmedia that they feel the plan is beginning a bit early, but noted Alberta is not alone in moving ahead with lighter restrictions

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Alberta’s health minister defended the timing of the province’s plan to remove COVID-19 public health measures as hospitalizations decreased Thursday.

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Health Minister Jason Copping said many leading indicators show the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital will continue to drop in the province and that Alberta has passed the peak of the Omicron wave. He said based on these downward trends, now is the right time to loosen restrictions, limiting their effects on Albertans.

“For more than two weeks we’ve actually seen new hospitalizations dropping like a rock, and so we know that the actual in-hospitals is also going to follow that trend. So our approach, generally, is we try to manage this so that we put the measures in place that are required, because each measure that we put in place has a cost,” said Copping. “We try to put them in place when necessary and then reduce them as soon as we are able to.”

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Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported Thursday that COVID hospitalizations decreased slightly to 1,586 people, down from 1,615 on Wednesday. The number of people in intensive care fell to 126, down from 135. She said there were 1,363 lab-confirmed cases reported in the past 24 hours.

There were 22 new COVID-19-related deaths reported Thursday, bringing the total during the pandemic to 3,718. Recorded active infections dropped to 25,339.

Leaked AHS data from last week show non-ICU hospitalizations are projected to continue to drop, with 1,206 people predicted to be receiving treatment on Feb. 22 under a “high projection”.

That number would be much lower than the peak of more than 1,500 non-ICU hospitalizations during the Omicron wave, but still higher than the peak of any previous waves.

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Copping said wastewater data also show the spread of the virus in Alberta is slowing.

Copping, along with Premier Jason Kenney, announced Tuesday that the province would enter the first phase of a three-staged approach beginning at midnight that night, with the provincial Restrictions Exemption Program being one of the first measures to go. Phase 2 is scheduled to begin March 1, further relaxing measures if pressures on hospitalizations continue to ease. Phase 3 would see all remaining measures removed and isolation for people who test positive changed from being mandatory to a recommendation. The timing for the final stage is dependent on declining pressures on hospitals.

Several Alberta doctors told Postmedia they feel the plan is beginning a bit early, but noted Alberta is not alone in moving ahead with lighter restrictions.

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Copping said Thursday the REP was no longer necessary as it had “done its job.” He said his government chose not to amend the program to require a third dose of vaccine as it did not make sense to add further restrictions after the peak of the fifth wave had passed and community spread is coming down.

The REP required Albertans to show proof of having received two doses of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test to enter non-essential businesses.

“On the theoretical standpoint, adding a third dose to an REP would help reduce transmission in those settings,” said Copping. “But if we don’t need to reduce the transmissions anymore, why would you do it? You wouldn’t, because at the end of the day, our focus has always been on protecting our health-care system capacity.”

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Copping said Albertans can still download their vaccination status but the provincial QR code reader app will not be available for new downloads. He said anyone that still wants to use the QR code scanner and already has it downloaded will still be able to use the reader for “quite some time,” or they can do a visual check of the code.

Copping said Albertans should continue to get booster shots and that there is ample supply of both Moderna and Pfizer. He stressed that COVID-19 could still cause challenges and there may be future waves of the virus, but said he is hopeful the province will be able to move to an endemic phase.

NDP Health critic David Shepherd said the removal of the vaccine verification app goes against Kenney’s claims earlier this week that businesses would be able to continue to implement the REP if they chose to do so. He also accused the UCP of trying to paint a brighter picture of the challenges the Omicron wave has created on the health-care system.

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“Health-care workers have been very clear that this has been the worst wave for them yet, and hospitals are still scrambling with reduced staffing and trying to catch up on surgery backlogs,” Shepherd said in a written statement.

Hinshaw announced Thursday that fully immunized workers in continuing-care settings will be able to work in multiple locations beginning Feb. 16. She also noted that bookings for third dose vaccine appointments for Albertans aged 12 to 17 with underlying health conditions or individuals in this age group who are First Nations, Métis or Inuit would open next week.

Fourth doses for Albertans in this age range who have immunocompromising conditions will also open Tuesday. Children aged five to 11 with immunocompromising conditions will also be able to book a third dose next week.

dshort@postmedia.com

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