We were extremely fortunate in Alberta to suffer only a glancing blow from COVID-19 during the first wave of the virus’ march around the globe. We prepared for a tsunami of cases but encountered barely a ripple.
There were a number of reasons why we were spared, as I discussed in some detail last May in This Pandemic is a Three-Legged Beast. In short — to bluntly oversimplify — it had as much to do with luck as it did with brains; as much to do with simple good fortune as with specific government or public health policies.
Yet we didn’t shrink from taking full credit for our “success” — we nearly broke our arms patting ourselves on the back. And we set Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw on a pedestal for steering us expertly through virus-infested waters.
Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples summed up the prevailing sentiment in a May 22 segment:
“Albertans have triumphantly answered one huge question about our response to COVID-19 with a grand slam home run,” he declared. “We have proven that we’re wise, diligent and responsible enough to drive down infection rates. Albertans haven’t just flattened the curve. We have steamrolled it and chucked it down a big hill.”
That bit of boasting hasn’t aged well. COVID cases are skyrocketing in the province; our hospitals and intensive care wards are beginning to fill with patients. Our ability to conduct proper contract tracing has been hopelessly overwhelmed. The government is introducing new societal restrictions; increasing numbers of doctors are calling for a “circuit-breaker” lock-down.
“Better to be vigilant rather than ‘triumphant’,” I wrote last May in response to Staples’ piece. “Lest the curve we’ve ‘steamrolled’ and ‘chucked down the hill’ bounces up and hits us squarely where it hurts.”
That’s what’s happened, sadly: the curve has reared up and kicked us in the teeth. Reality is biting, and hard.
It needn’t have to come to this. But we got complacent. After the feared winter/spring COVID wallop didn’t materialize, and summer sent us all outdoors where the virus had a tougher time hopscotching from person to person, we began to believe we had gotten off essentially scot-free.
We knew the simple three steps needed to keep the virus at bay: indoor mask-wearing, social distancing, and diligent hand-washing.
But too many of us didn’t bother to do that dance — or if we did it, to keep it up. Too many of us chose the Texas two-step in bars and nightclubs over the COVID three-step needed to keep our businesses open. Too many of us neglected to wear masks in indoor work spaces. Too many of us went back to socializing with large gatherings of friends and family just as we did pre-pandemic.
In the summer we got away with it; but once the weather turned cold and drove us back inside, it was inevitable that we’d pay the price.
So now we’re up against it: 1000 positive tests on both Saturday and Sunday. Something must be done. But what?
The steps announced by Premier Kenney’s administration on Thursday were akin to putting lipstick on a pig. Shutting down youth recreational activities for two weeks, for example, makes zero sense and will make zero difference. It’s not the youth who are driving the sharp up-swing in cases. They’ve been doing the COVID three-step at school and at their organized activities far more faithfully and skillfully than their adult counterparts. The fact that viral infectious diseases of all stripes have stopped circulating among our youth is proof positive. In a typical November the emergency department at the Alberta Children’s Hospital where I work is stuffed to the rafters with patients; it’s all but deserted these days. Fevers, coughs, runny noses, vomiting, and diarrhea have all but disappeared — because for the first time in modern history kids are wearing masks and washing their hands with religious fervor.
Let the kids go back to their activities, I say. They are not the problem. And keep the schools open at all costs. They aren’t the problem, either.
Instead, let’s properly deal with community spread amongst adults. We need a mandatory masking law province-wide, for all indoor spaces outside of personal residences, with non-compliance punishable by a hefty fine. And let’s strictly enforce the rules around social gatherings.
That may not be enough. Even if we collectively begin to do the COVID three-step perfectly, we may not be able to get ahead of the huge spike in cases that has already occurred, particularly since our ability to do proper contract tracing has been swamped.
We may need a reset, a short, sharp “circuit-breaker” shutdown for two weeks (with schools open and kids’ sports and activities kept running). The premier is dead set against another prolonged lockdown, and understandably so: the economic, educational, and psychological costs are far too great.
But our complacency has caused us to lose control of this virus. Without effective, decisive action to regain control, I fear the costs will be even greater.
We need, in David Staples’ phrasing, to steamroll the curve and chuck it back down the hill.
There’s plenty of good news, it’s important to note. We’re far better at treating COVID patients now compared with last spring; hospital stays are shorter, and case fatality rates are much lower than they were.
And the innovative vaccines just announced by Pfizer and Moderna offer a real beacon of hope.
The end to this nightmare may be in sight. Let’s not screw this up now.
Dance, people. Just dance.