It has become clear that the Alberta government has given up on its role to protect us from the acute and long-term risks of COVID-19. “Everyone will get it” seems to be the mantra of the day. This defeatist ethos is a self-fulfilling prophecy: COVID-19 infection, even in the era of the hyper-transmissible Omicron variant, is not and should not be considered an inevitable outcome. But it may occur should we fail as a society.
Protect Our Province Alberta was born from necessity in the fourth wave, as scientists, physicians and citizens came together as a collective to provide Albertans with science-based perspectives and practical advice for individuals as well as advocacy for safer governance when the provincial government betrayed its duties to protect Albertans from the risks of the virus. With the ongoing failure of leadership in Alberta (and beyond), it is our hope that we can continue to provide some guidance through these dangerous waters.
Our group supports 10 shared principles: important scientific facts or principles which counter the harmful messages being shared by officials or on social media (often both).
- COVID is transmitted predominantly via aerosols a.k.a. airborne transmission, and transmission mitigation should include respirator masks, good ventilation and filtration. By acknowledging this, we can avoid useless activities like deep cleaning and plexiglass in shared spaces and focus our time, money and energy on mitigation measures that matter.
- Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread is prevalent and must be accounted for. By treating everyone (including yourself) as a possible spreader of the virus, people and institutions will be much more adept at avoiding transmission.
- Schools are sources of transmission and contribute to community spread. They must become safe places again. We can ensure they are safe by increasing vaccination rates among students, boosters for teachers and airborne mitigation practices such as the distribution of respirators to all students and staff and air filtration in every classroom.
- We need all layers of protection. A vaccine-only mitigation policy is not enough. Vaccines are very important and are crucial to putting an end to the pandemic, but they must be included in a suite of public health measures, based on the Swiss cheese model of risk. Vaccine-only approaches have been tried by multiple jurisdictions, most notably Alberta this past summer, and all have failed. Since every layer of protection is not foolproof (including vaccines), only by layering multiple types of protection can we ensure that individuals and society stay safe. The Omicron variant, although more transmissible, is still susceptible to the physics of filtration and ventilation and masking.
- It is not inevitable that everyone will be infected with COVID at some point. Efforts must still continue to minimize spread. If we give up on mitigation measures, the Omicron variant will surely overwhelm our system. Society, and individuals, must not give up.
- In particular, for the Omicron variant, the speed of spread and unknowns related to its risk of Long COVID or death make it essential that we treat it like a high-risk public health hazard. Pre-Omicron, up to 30 per cent of adults and 10 per cent of children went on to have long-term symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue and cognitive impairment. Until we know what the implications for Omicron are, and unless they are much less concerning, we should be mitigating its spread lest we unleash a tsunami of disability on society.
- Anticipate the math rather than reacting to it. Exponential growth is intuitively challenging for people to understand, but its principles are based in relatively simple math. We can forecast growth and prevent horrific outcomes, but it requires acting early and often, before the danger is fully visible to the public. We need models to be shared openly and regularly, and explained well.
- The precautionary principle stands as a foundational element of public health, yet it has been recurrently jettisoned throughout the pandemic. In a situation filled with unknowns, we must act in a fashion to maximize benefit and minimize risk.
- A multidisciplinary approach is essential to tackle wicked problems like the COVID pandemic. Wicked problems are those that don’t lend themselves to straightforward solutions and require time, self-correction, deep study and multiple perspectives to solve. They need collaboration across many fields of expertise, including physicians, nurses, other health-care workers, engineers, social scientists, artists, teachers, citizen activists and many more.
- The more equitable a society, the healthier it is for all; a fact that holds true for COVID. When government policy worsens social inequities and systemic oppression, it is our duty to demand change. Likewise, until the entire world has access to COVID vaccinations, this pandemic will not end. None of us is safe from COVID until we are all safe from COVID.
As there is a high risk for future waves, we will only be able to have relatively normal lives by applying these principles, thus keeping transmission levels to a minimum to allow society to thrive.
Understanding that many of our fundamental values contrast with those of our provincial leaders, our feeling is that, in a democracy, the free flow of ideas is essential to allow for the best to rise to the top. We hope that citizens and leaders alike will consider these ideas and use them to adjust policy and protect themselves.
PoPAB will continue to host regular briefings with experts to discuss policy and educate Albertans on best practices for keeping themselves and their loved ones safe. Our government may no longer care about us, but we can care about each other.
Written on behalf of ProtectOurProvinceAB.
An earlier version of this article was first published in the Edmonton Journal.