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EDITORIAL: COVID-19 strategy a public-health matter of its own

'What's concerning is that, no matter what tack Alberta, or the federal government take, Canadians are left with the impression it’s too little, too much, or too late.'

With the Omicron variant surging across the province, and total active cases at 57,332, as reported Monday afternoon, the province again made a tactical shift to battle COVID-19's effects on our overtaxed health-care system by changing its rules for who is eligible for a PCR test.

Alberta's medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, pegged the actual active case count, conservatively, at a much higher number — "... We're one in 10 or greater at this point in time in terms of the number of cases that we're catching," she said Monday, which means the actual number of cases is likely closer to more than half a million.

Hinshaw announced that, from now on, Albertans with mild symptoms — stuffy/runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat, or loss of smell or taste — "... should assume you have COVID-19 and are legally required to isolate," instead of seeking out a PCR test.

The move is to ensure enough tests are available for those at risk for severe outcomes or who live or work in high-risk settings, such as health-care workers; residents and staff in acute- and continuing-care settings; and returning international travellers who become symptomatic within 14 days.

Omicron's push across Alberta has shoved PCR test wait times to several days, and results are now taking nearly 48 hours — a significant increase for both.

That makes this the right move right now, given the limits of the province's current testing abilities and the risk Omicron presents to high-risk Albertans.

It does not, however, address the added strain this shift in policy will create for employers, or whether it's really enough to save the health-care system.
Schools that welcomed students back to class on Monday morning also expressed concern over how a fast-spreading variant, and the province's new testing rules, could have drastic effects on the number of staff and students forced to isolate with mild symptoms that may be attributed to other illnesses, such as colds or allergies.

The private sector, too, will not only feel the pinch of lingering reduced-capacity rules, but the challenge of staffing around those forced to isolate without ever knowing if COVID-19 is the cause.

At this stage, there is no easy approach. Perhaps it would have made better sense to stave off the spread by moving all the schools to online learning, and insisting those employers who can, must push staff to work remotely.

We won't really know until we know; many households and businesses are already doing all they can to limit the spread.

What's concerning is that, no matter what tack Alberta, or the federal government take, Canadians are left with the impression it’s too little, too much, or too late. The ramifications of on-again, off-again lockdowns is proving to be a public-health matter on its own. And Canada’s relative lack of hospital capacity and limited ability to withstand a pandemic-induced surge is an issue in need of immediate attention. 

It's going to take much more than minor adjustments to right this fourth-wave ship. The real question is whether the provincial and federal governments will have the guts to make a drastic, albeit unpopular, move to rescue our health-care system before it no longer has the capacity to save those who need it.