Doctors urge Alberta to hold off on easing COVID-19 restrictions next week

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EDMONTON — A group of health professionals is urging the Alberta government not to ease COVID-19 restrictions next week and to instead toughen measures for bars, restaurants and pubs.

Two doctors who co-chair the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association's pandemic committee made the plea in a statement released Friday.

"The health care system and the population, after having been stressed for so long, really can't tolerate another surge before the end of our vaccination campaign," said Dr. Noel Gibney and Dr. James Talbot, noting it will be months before all at-risk Albertans are inoculated.

"Any further easing of COVID-19 restrictions should only be undertaken when all high-risk individuals in the province have been immunized. We have a short window remaining to prevent another surge and protect Albertans, but it is rapidly closing."

Gibney and Talbot said that new daily active cases have stopped decreasing and the number of new infections that result from each case is growing. A new, more transmissible variant first found in the United Kingdom could cause rapid increases if it becomes the dominant strain, they said.

The doctors added the province should close bars, restaurants and pubs to indoor service, or at least put a meaningful cap on capacity and enforce the current restrictions.

"It is clear that many bars, pubs and restaurants are not obeying the current restrictions that are in place. They are overcrowded, not enforcing same household rules and are over safe capacity at peak times," they said.

"This is an extreme risk for a third wave with the original COVID-19 strain and is even higher risk for the more transmissible U.K. variant."

The doctors also note it will be months before all at-risk Albertans are vaccinated.

The Alberta government could as soon as Monday ease restrictions on retail businesses, banquet halls, community halls, conference centres, hotels, indoor fitness and children's sport and performance activities.

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has to be below 450 in order for the next reopening phase to go ahead, and numbers have been below that for under a month.

But the province's chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has said the next reopening phase is not a done deal because the test positivity rate and other so-called leading indicators are rising.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the province still needs to review the latest data before making a decision, but new daily cases have so far not been rising at a rate that would raise alarm.

Nor has Shandro seen anything that would warrant clamping down on eating and drinking establishments.

"But if that ever was brought to my attention by Dr. Hinshaw, of course we would want to work with her in being able to address any community spread that we have in the smartest and most targeted, narrow way that we can."

Alberta on Friday recorded 356 new COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths.

There were 269 people in hospital, including 55 in intensive care.

The test positivity rate was 3.9 per cent.

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.

The Canadian Press