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Have Albertans accepted the high death toll from COVID? Experts intervene

Dozens of Albertans continue to lose their lives to COVID-19 each week, and as these stories fade from political news, questions are being raised as to whether the ever-growing pandemic death toll is returning to normal.

In the past two weeks alone, there have been 131 COVID-related deaths in the province. A total of 4,452 Albertans have died.

“I know the pandemic is still touching people’s lives,” said Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, revealing the virus left a tragic mark on his family.

“I lost my father-in-law to COVID just over two weeks ago.”

Caulfield sees the death of his father-in-law, along with so many others, as a stark reminder that the pandemic is not over.

“As a society, we’re starting to sort of normalize those numbers. And we see it at the political level, but I think we see it at the population level. That is interesting. And I think we have to think about it, is that really acceptable?”

According to Caulfield, polls show many Canadians think it’s time to move on. And while there are positive signs as some of Alberta’s COVID-19 indicators begin to fall, he argues it’s not time to give up.

“People are just sick of the pandemic… They don’t want to hear the word ‘COVID’ anymore. But you also have a political dimension here, where politicians recognize that, maybe encourage it and want to continue. ” he said.

“I think the combination of the two can create a complacency that isn’t fully justified by science or what’s really going on in our hospitals.”

“Hard to understand”

Craig Jenne of the University of Calgary is also watching with concern the relentless deaths.

“The number of deaths is still of great concern… Unfortunately we are losing between eight and ten Albertans every day. And that’s really hard to understand,” said Jenne, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

To illustrate the high number, Jenne compares deaths from COVID-19 to those from the flu. During a particularly bad flu season, he said, there would be between 120 and 130 influenza deaths in Alberta.

“We lose so many Albertans to COVID every two weeks,” he said.

Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, lost his father-in-law Fred Otto to COVID just a few weeks ago. (Sam Martin/CBC)

“Twice as many people lose their lives to COVID each month than we have seen in a month [entire] bad flu season. So this is still a very significant infectious disease.”

According to Jenne, that pattern has changed while virus levels, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen dramatically between previous pandemic waves, and baseline levels now remain higher between waves.

“It seems provincial that we have accepted this. And it’s very worrying because some of those deaths are likely to be preventable,” he said, noting that full vaccination, including booster doses, remains effective in preventing serious illnesses.

“It’s pretty clear that across Alberta we may not be implementing these safeguards as well as we have in other provinces and as a result we continue to see deaths here.”

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, speaking at a news conference this week, said cases and positivity rates are the first to drop as a wave recedes, followed by hospitalizations and eventually deaths.

Craig Jenne, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary, says Albertans are losing twice as many people to COVID in one month as the province would see in an entire bad flu season. (Colin Hall/CBC)

“Therefore this high number of deaths that we have seen in the last few weeks as well as this week is not unexpected, although it is a tragic reminder of the serious impact of this virus,” she said.

“This is a late indicator showing the impact of the BA.2 surge. As we see positive results and the steady decline in hospital admissions, we should expect the death toll to do the same very soon.”

As Hinshaw continues to acknowledge Alberta’s COVID-19 deaths in her weekly updates, Caulfield said the pandemic has shifted from urging people to work together for the greater good to a focus on both Canada and around the world shifted to individual responsibility.

And that, he argues, could have long-term consequences.

“At the same time, we hear these revisionist stories about the impact of COVID and the value of these public health actions. What else does a person have to do? They are told it was no big deal. You will be asked to complete individual risk assessments. It’s a recipe for complacency,” he said.

“That is a recipe for not taking this seriously in the future. And I also think it’s a recipe for making it more difficult to implement public health measures in the future when they are needed.”

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