Infectious disease experts are pressing the Alberta government to impose more stringent public health measures to curb the record-breaking number of COVID-19 cases.
At a news conference Friday, Premier Jason Kenney asked people in Edmonton and Calgary to stop holding social gatherings in their homes, a voluntary measure that falls short of broad mandatory capacity limits and closures called for by some experts and adopted by other provinces.
"This is a bit of a risky move because if the spread continues, in spite of this suggestion, it will actually put us behind in getting things under control," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.
Edmonton and Calgary were placed under a mandatory 15-person social gathering limit last month, a measure the province's chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged this week was not doing enough to contain the virus.
While Kenney said he wouldn't rule out new measures if cases continue to increase, Saxinger says now is the time to restrict capacity and potentially close some businesses. The longer the province waits, she says, the more likely it will take another round of lockdowns to flatten the curve.
"We've kind of been hoping to see more decisive action and response to the rising cases," she said.
Lockdown or no restrictions not the only choices: expert
The premier called lockdowns a "massive invasion" on fundamental rights and the economy at Friday's news conference, saying the government is taking a "minimal impairment approach." Kenney also played down the COVID-19 death toll, which has claimed 352 lives, saying it's projected to be the 11th leading cause of death in the province this year.
"I myself can't see that argument flying very far," said Saxinger. "I would just say look outside our borders. I don't think there's any doubt that this can be a devastating virus."
Kenney said the province's goal was not to reach zero COVID-19 cases. Rather the goal is to keep the spread under control so it doesn't overwhelm the health care system without "hammering our bread social, economic, mental and physical health," he said.
But the conversation shouldn't be framed as a choice between lockdown or no mandatory restrictions, says Craig Jenne, an associate professor at the University of Calgary in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases.
"Instead, use a measured, targeted response within an open economy," Jenne said. "We need to have some form of regulated guidelines."
Jenne pointed to jurisdictions such as Manitoba and Ontario, which have a sliding scale of restrictions based on the number of cases.
"I would just say look outside our borders. I don't think there's any doubt that this can be a devastating virus." - Dr. Lynora Saxinger, infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta
The Winnipeg region, which has roughly 300 more active cases than Calgary or Edmonton but a smaller population, introduced "red level" restrictions this week, shutting restaurants and bars for dine-in service and limiting all other retailers to 25 per cent capacity. The Peel Region outside Toronto was moved to Ontario's "red zone" Friday, allowing gyms to reopen and limiting restaurants and bars to a maximum of 10 indoor customers at a time.
Kenney dismissed calls for greater restrictions on bars and restaurants on Friday, noting those businesses account for less than one per cent of known exposures, while social gatherings make up around 40 per cent.
The issue, Saxinger and Jenne say, is the province is still unable to determine where someone contracted the virus roughly 40 per cent the time. Compounding that issue, the province announced that given the soaring number of cases contact tracers will no longer notify people found to be in close contact with an infected person, unless they are linked to a high-priority setting, such as hospitals or schools.
"It's a little bit unclear that those are actually remaining safe spaces," said Saxinger. "We've had such an increase in community transmission that really any indoor spaces where people gather looks like a risk space until we're proven otherwise."
Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer, said while other jurisdictions have used more stringent restrictions to slow the spread, it was important to consider the province's overall health.
"What is really critical is that we're doing everything we can to provide every opportunity for us to bend this curve down together before considering more aggressive restrictions and watching numbers very closely," she said Friday.
Rules needed, health-care professionals say
New cases surpassed at least 500 in each day of the past week, with a single-day record of 802 on Wednesday.
Hospitalization rates also continue to hit new heights, with 171 people currently admitted with COVID-19. Intensive care admissions have more than doubled in the past two weeks to 33 from 14.
Hospital outbreaks are also putting increased pressure on capacity, doctors have warned.
"My biggest fear is that my ICU has to double in size and then I have to provide care that isn't the same level that I used to," said Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, one of seven hospitals in the province contending with outbreaks.
"I would like clear direction from our provincial government. I would like rules not suggestions and I would like to see community spread drop."
The rising cases in Edmonton also has some health professionals in northern rural communities worried.
As hospital capacity shrinks, it could have an impact on patients in rural settings who need to be transferred to an Edmonton hospital, said Katie O'Byrne, a public health nurse in Peace River.
"Personally, I was really hoping that the government was going to be doing more to give better guidance and better rules to control the spread. Overall I think it was a pretty disappointing press conference," she said during an interview on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.