As countries around the world wrestle with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them are trying short, sharp lockdowns — a “circuit breaker” that shuts the country down for a couple weeks to curb the spread and then starts things back up again.
The idea, which has caught on in Wales, Germany and Poland, has arrived in Canada, too, with Manitoba and British Columbia both entering restricted periods to try and curb cases.
In Alberta, too, where the government has been hesitant to introduce wide-ranging lockdowns because of the economic consequences, several dozen physicians wrote to Premier Jason Kenney, seeking a temporary shutdown to bring case counts under control.
Noel Gibney, an emeritus professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of medicine, said the impetus to write the letter came from the daily case numbers, increasing ICU admissions, and a Friday press conference where Premier Jason Kenney urged people to continue following guidelines that are in place.
The reality, Gibney said, is that as we enter winter and people congregate indoors, we are, quite simply, in a different scenario than spring, and that means considering new ways of tackling the pandemic, such as a short-term lockdown to get case counts under control.
“If people follow this, and it works, we will be able to lessen the degree of restriction in the future,” Gibney explained.
Gibney said the open letter doesn’t specify what specific actions actions the government should take — for example, whether bars, schools or churches should close — that’s a job, he said, best left to public health officials. But the letter details the risks to the health-care system posed by rising case counts. “When these resources are overwhelmed, mortality rates from COVID-19 and other potentially treatable conditions increase dramatically.”
“We have lots of beds in the system that we can put online, we have ventilators … we don’t have any staff, you cannot duplicate our staff, our staff are exhausted,” said Gibney.
The Alberta government is considering further, unspecified, restrictions. As yet, few mandatory restrictions have been put in place across the province beyond capping private gatherings to 15 people.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, said at her Monday briefing that the circuit breaker proposal is an “interesting idea,” but that the government is giving Albertans the chance to follow the rules and bend the curve before more stringent measures are put in place.
“We know there is no one perfect way … we need to look at all options on the table,” Hinshaw said.
As of Monday’s update, there were just shy of 8,000 active COVID-19 cases in the province, with 192 people in hospital and 39 in intensive care. There have been 369 deaths.
Asked recently about why the government hasn’t imposed lockdowns, Kenney said it would be a “massive invasion of people’s fundamental rights, a massive impact on not only their personal liberties but their ability to put food on the table.”
For several weeks, Alberta has been climbing towards new daily records of COVID-19 cases. Consistently, when pressed on future restrictions, Kenney and others have pointed to the devastation it could bring to people’s incomes.
“Look, we have tens of thousands of small businesses who are barely hanging on. Behind every one is someone’s life savings, a family whose entire future is at risk,” Kenney said on Oct. 20. “I really fear what the economic, social, mental and emotional health impacts of (repeated lockdowns) will be.”