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COLUMN: COVID-19 – switching to herd immunity

"Clearly the government has abandoned a previous plan of increasing the number of test sites and laboratory capacity to cover demand."
Murdock Alan-col
Columnist Alan Murdock

One of the reasons why Canada has been faring better than the U.S. in the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the close co-operation between our politicians and public health professionals in developing and implementing the rules for public behaviour and health strategies. There are times, however, when opinions on what to do will differ. Such is the case in Alberta when the political leadership realized that the demand and cost of universal on-demand testing for COVID-19 was escalating well beyond the capacity for current laboratory and testing site availability. Unhappily, our provincial governors shirked their responsibility and displayed cowardice instead of executive grit.

This past week’s decision by the Alberta government to discontinue on-demand testing for citizens who were not ill was apparently based on the finding that only seven of 10,000 COVID-19 tests of this group of Albertans were positive. This decision does not apply to healthcare workers, long-term care staff, teachers (and other school staff) and homeless citizens. They can continue to be tested while having no symptoms of illness.

Had this new restriction been in place from the beginning, just over 3,000 Albertans would not have been diagnosed unless and until they became ill and thus more infective toward others than at the time of testing. This number accounts for 18 per cent of the total cases of COVID-19 (17,343) to date. It is unknown how many, if any, went on to become ill, were hospitalized or died. Presumably none, but that information was not available or released.

That being said, one wonders why Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw was tasked to make the announcement, as this was an administrative/political management decision based presumably on ‘cost effectiveness’ and not one that a physician would have been comfortable releasing or advocating for.

Clearly the government has abandoned a previous plan of increasing the number of test sites and laboratory capacity to cover demand. Rather, we are moving toward the Swedish model of stimulating herd immunity without the availability of a vaccine.

In any event, under the present circumstances, we are trying very hard to return to normalized community living and restarting business and commercial activity where no vaccine or curative treatment is available. Effective implementation of prevention strategies has become more important than ever.  

Presumably the government will now review its public health orders and forcefully prosecute those who deliberately ignore them. Publishing the names of convicted violators might also help compliance among high risk groups – employing somewhat the same effort as the Premier is putting toward publicly releasing Alberta physicians’ gross incomes.    

Ontario has just taken a similar step in test availability as their testing sites are being overwhelmed now that schools are opened.  

This fall could become very dangerous.

Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.