'Throwing caution to the wind': Experts react to Alberta’s changing quarantine policy

After Alberta announced it would make sweeping changes to its COVID-19 response, including dropping mandatory isolation protocols, some experts from outside the province and across the border are calling it “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

Starting Thursday, close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 will no longer be mandated to quarantine, but isolation will still be required for positive cases and people with symptoms.

On Aug. 16, those who test positive for COVID-19 will not be mandated to quarantine anymore, but the province will recommend it. Those with COVID-19 symptoms will not be required to get tested but asked to stay at home until they feel better.

Alberta’s approach comes as countries with even higher overall vaccination rates, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are experiencing surges in infections leading to increased hospitalizations and deaths.

Ryan Imgrund, a COVID-19 biostatistician from Sudbury, Ont., working with public health units in the province, told CTV News that Alberta is an outlier when it comes to policy responding to the pandemic and reproductive values.

“The data and the science is definitely not guiding the policy in Alberta,” he said. “As far as I know right now, Alberta is the only place in the world that will be allowing COVID positive people to not have to self-isolate,” he added.

“The only place in the world. We are talking Florida, the United Kingdom; all those places, they not only require someone that is COVID positive to self-isolate, but they also require those that are close contacts to also isolate as well.”

Seventy-five per cent of the population aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine while 64.6 per cent of those eligible for vaccination are fully immunized.

‘WORRISOME’ APPROACH: EPIDEMIOLOGIST

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a U.S.-based epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said Alberta’s policy shifts caught his attention.

“This is really worrisome,” Feigl-Ding said. “Even if you are vaccinated, I know (Hinshaw) cited that there is a high vaccination rate, you can still get infected, and even if you are not hospitalized you can still transmit COVID-19.

“Long COVID is serious,” he added. “This is where to stop COVID transmission, to stop future variants, you have to stop the transmission chain. A positive person not isolating is just the worst possible recipe of keeping the virus still spreading.”

His biggest concern with the policy direction Alberta has announced is that quarantine rules will be relaxed at a time when case counts are rising and that the province has one of the highest reproductive values in Canada.

“They’re doing all this amid the highest, fastest surge in terms of rates of increase,” Feighl-Ding said. “It is antithetical to public health.”

OTHER PROVINCES KEEP QUARANTINE REQUIREMENTS

Saskatchewan has “Living with COVID” language in their public health policies like Alberta, but isolation requirements remain in effect.

“COVID-19 is a communicable disease reportable under the Public Health Act,” said Paul Merriman, Saskatchewan’s minister of health, in a statement to CTV News.

Merriman said that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in Saskatchewan must self-isolate, or risk receiving a $2,800 fine.

“This direction has been and continues to be provided by public health officials to all individuals who test positive for COVID-19.

“As with all communicable diseases, contact traces from public health will follow up with anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in order to conduct an investigation and provide counselling,” the minister added.

Meanwhile, British Columbia is reinstating masking restrictions in the province's central interior in the hopes of containing a COVID-19 outbreak.

The policy shifts around quarantining means the rate of community transmission could increase, Imgrund said.

“This is really going to really force this to become endemic. It is going to lead to a drastic increase in hospitalizations.”

For Imgrund, the step of removing quarantine requirements is not inevitable now, but six months from now — at the earliest.

“This is the next step when we are successfully able to vaccinate the under 12 population,” he shared.  “This is not the next step when 55 per cent of a population have been vaccinated.”

In Feigl-Ding’s view, Alberta’s policy is “irresponsible.”

“You know in the face of rising cases, surging cases, Alberta’s throwing caution to the wind,” he said.

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Dan Grummett and Diego Romero