Check against delivery
Thank you, and good morning everyone.
The last time I stood in front of you, I shared with you the plan to shift towards a more sustainable approach to COVID-19, where we could use an enhanced version of the public health systems that manage other respiratory viruses to also manage COVID.
At that time, I promised you that we would closely monitor COVID-19 for a two-week period, and adapt as needed, before the remaining changes came into effect on August 16th.
Throughout COVID-19, I have been committed to following the data and evidence, and my team has been nimble, adjusting our recommendations as needed when the facts have supported it.
Since I made my previous recommendations, I have been watching local and international data closely, and two items have emerged that have led me to recommend that we adjust our approach and defer the changes originally scheduled for August 16.
First, current non-ICU hospitalizations in our province are trending somewhat higher than we anticipated.
Our initial modelling showed that at this time we would expect to have about 90 total cases in hospital.
Compared to 146 cases in hospital today, this is an increase of 62 per cent over our projections.
To be clear, there is no issue with hospital capacity.
Anyone who needs treatment will be able to get it – either for a COVID-related illness or for an unrelated issue.
However, it is important to take some additional time to monitor the situation.
Second, we are closely watching the emerging evidence from the United States about pediatric cases with the Delta variant.
The experience in the US has been different from the information from the United Kingdom, which we used to inform our original decision.
In the UK, the Delta variant did not cause a different experience in children than previous COVID waves.
Children under 15 remained the lowest risk of severe outcomes from infection.
In the US, unfortunately, hospitalizations in children have started to rise, most significantly in states with lower overall immunization rates.
It seems most likely that the reason for the difference between these two settings is the level of adult immunization, which is protective for children via reduced household and other community transmission.
In the UK, almost 75 per cent of adults have received two doses of vaccine, while in Florida, one of the states where high hospitalizations have been reported in children, only 60 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated.
In Alberta, at just over 67 per cent of the eligible population fully immunized, we are in the middle of these two.
Given this emerging evidence, I want to further monitor these trends.
I do not share this information to cause alarm. To date, we have not seen a similar rise in severe cases in youth here in Alberta.
Since July 1, we have had only seven cases in hospital under the age of 18.
However, it is important to monitor our trends in a consistent way, and to continue to require cases to isolate while we do so.
Based on these developing factors, I have recommended that we pause the next step in our transition for a period of six weeks, until September 27th.
Not only does this allow us to do further monitoring, it also gives us more time to increase vaccination levels, which is the number one most important thing adults and older children can do to protect themselves and younger children and others around them.
If monitoring confirms our original expectations that a rise in cases will not lead to high levels of hospitalizations, and we do not see evidence of increased risk for severe disease for children, we will proceed with implementing this next set of changes after September 27th.
However, this means for the time being:
- provincial masking orders for transit, school busses, taxis and ride shares remain in effect;
- isolation will continue to be legally required for those with core COVID-19 symptoms and those who test positive for COVID-19; and
- symptomatic testing will continue to be available at assessment centres by self-referral.
I want to be clear that it is still important for us to continue to work towards a sustainable approach to managing COVID-19 that considers the harms of interventions as well as the direct harms from COVID-19.
This is why the changes related to contact tracing that came into effect July 29th remain in effect.
We are not going backwards, we are pausing to monitor and assess before taking a next step forward.
Having said that, I am sorry that the way that I have communicated about these changes, and the rapid pace of them, has caused distress.
My team is working to summarize the evidence that has informed my belief that this is the best way forward for the health of Albertans, and I am committed to both providing you with that evidence and listening to your perspectives.
The other information I am here to share today is about plans for returning to school.
I know that we all care deeply about our children and their safety and well-being, and there are a variety of perspectives on how to best balance all the risks they face.
With that in mind, the guidance we are releasing today considers the risks of COVID-19, as well as the risks of public health measures on children’s overall health and well-being.
It is important that we look at all factors that support physical, mental and emotional health to make sure that precautions are proportionate to overall risk level.
It is in this broader context that our provincial guidance has been crafted.
We know that the public health measures that were necessary last year to control COVID-19, including the temporary closure of schools to in-person learning, quarantine of entire classes, and cancelling extracurricular events, have been associated with a deterioration in the mental health of children and youth.
Many children reported increased feelings of social isolation, depression, and anxiety.
It is important to keep the negative impacts of these measures in mind, particularly when looking at a population that is at lower risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.
Looking at our data right here in Alberta, children have had very low rates of severe illness compared with other health risks.
For example, last year in 2020, four times more school-aged children were admitted to hospital for fall-related injuries, and almost eight times as many were admitted for anxiety disorders than for COVID.
Overall, less than half of one per cent of diagnosed COVID cases in school-aged children have required hospital care and thankfully there have been no COVID-related deaths in children.
I recognize that for the families who had a child in hospital, the fact that this was rare did not take away that challenge for them.
I would not wish that experience on families, and yet I also know that we cannot prevent every health risk for our children.
In fact, sometimes when we take action to avoid one risk, we increase risk in other areas.
We have worked closely with Alberta Education and Alberta Health Services to develop guidance to prevent and manage all respiratory illnesses in schools.
This guidance includes expectations around good public health practices such as staying home when sick, and regular hand hygiene and cleaning.
Masking will not be universally required in schools, but may be recommended as one of several temporary interventions for respiratory outbreaks in general.
Throughout the coming school year, school officials can also make decisions that are right for them and their communities.
This includes the ability to consider putting health measures in place for their schools that may exceed those put into place across the province, in response to the particular needs and contexts in their areas.
It is also important for families to consider their individual risks and contexts, and make decisions that are best for them, such as for those who choose to wear masks.
In return, schools and school authorities are expected to support these personal choices, wherever possible.
And the best choice we can make to protect ourselves and our children, is to be fully immunized.
We have a strong ally on our side with vaccines.
Having as many people immunized as possible will protect both those who have received their vaccine, as well as those who are not yet able to get one.
This is why, before the school year begins, I am asking all eligible Albertans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.
The school year begins for most students in about three weeks, and it takes about two weeks to develop the highest protection after getting your second dose.
Although it is best to get a vaccine before school starts, for those who aren’t able to do so, we will also offer COVID-19 vaccines in schools.
Immunizations will be available through temporary clinics in schools for students in grades 7 to 12 as well as teachers and staff, starting on September 7th.
Right now, only about half of youth 12-17 are fully vaccinated.
Providing vaccines through school ensures vaccines will be accessible to all eligible school-aged Albertans in the province.
By continuing to get fully vaccinated, following recommended guidance, and managing outbreaks, together we can support children safely returning to school this fall.
We have been through a lot in the past year and a half, and our kids’ lives in particular have been profoundly changed.
COVID has taken a lot from them by the impacts of the measures we have needed to protect our communities, however vaccines give us the chance to change that.
I wish everyone a healthy return to school.
And I will now turn the podium over to Minister LaGrange.