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Alberta's pandemic messaging goes wildly astray just in time for back-to-school

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Lethbridge-East MLA and United Conservative Party caucus chair Nathan Neudorf (Photo: Nathan Neudorf/Facebook).

Alberta's pandemic strategy continues to move deeply into full-blown implementation of the Great Barrington Declaration -- the discredited notion the best way to respond to COVID-19 is to infect almost everyone except the vulnerable elderly and thereby achieve herd immunity.

The latest sign that the United Conservative Party has tacitly adopted Great Barringtonism as its approach to the Delta-variant-powered fourth wave of COVID-19 was the startling commentary Friday by UCP caucus chair Nathan Neudorf on an online newscast produced by a Lethbridge Christian digital TV station.

"Case numbers can sometimes be a flashy, scary number in the media to catch people's attention, but that's not the whole story," the Lethbridge-East MLA told the news anchor at Bridge City News, run by the southern Alberta city's CJIL (Christ Jesus Is Lord) UHF station. "But that's not the whole story, and we just want to make sure that people are really following the science as we allow the economy to get back on its feet."

"But if you watch the science around the world with this fourth wave, as it's been called, in the U.K. we also saw a rapid rise of case numbers, but then an equally rapid decline, as it finished going through the unvaccinated population it didn't have anywhere else to go," he continued in response to the newscaster's friendly prompts.

"So I am very hopeful that we will see the same kind of trend," he said. "Maybe a bit of an accelerated case rate, but then a very quick decline as well, allowing us to safely keep businesses open, so that we don't have to add further restrictions.

"We will keep what we’ve got in place right now, allow the opening of schools to see what happens there, but we will continue to watch those numbers and monitor safely, but we want to keep the economy going as best we can as well." (Emphasis added.)

Since the provincial government has never publicly indicated it intends to fully adopt what would be a highly controversial approach to COVID-19, it's not clear if Neudorf's commentary was intended to actually indicate official policy, if he thought no one would notice his comments on a small religious station, or if he's expressing the hopes of a subset of the UCP caucus in the Legislature.

With a vacationing Premier Jason Kenney missing in action since Aug. 9 (rumors have put him in Greece, or at a religious retreat in another province), Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw also on holiday, and Health Minister Tyler Shandro issuing pronouncements only via Twitter, there's no one to ask this question.

But with schools set to start opening in three days and no children under 12 vaccinated against COVID-19, a very large number of Albertans are extremely anxious to get answers.

Critics on social media were quick to point out that what Neudorf described as happening in the U.K., isn't exactly the way things played out after the arrival of the Delta variant. Cases in Britain are now surging again, although deaths from COVID are lower than in previous waves as a result of high levels of vaccination.

As for the Great Barrington Declaration, it offered science deniers all over the world a few shreds of scientific respectability -- at least until it was revealed that among the 15,000 "scientists" who supposedly signed the thing by clicking a button on a website were Dr. Johnny Fartpants, Professor Notaf Uckingclue, Dr. Person Fakename, Dr. Very Dodgy Doctor, and Mr. Banana Rama.

Nor did it help that the declaration turned out to have been sponsored by a Koch Brothers-funded libertarian "think tank" until then better known for denying that climate change is even a thing.

Premier Kenney has long seemed entranced by the Great Barrington idea, despite its sketchy reputation in scientific circles. Unfortunately, as noted, he's not available to cast any light on his current views.

None other than Hinshaw assailed the Great Barrington Declaration as rife with flaws in a lengthy statement published on the Alberta government's website on Oct. 28, 2020 -- before the hyper-aggressive Delta variant emerged to complicate responding to COVID further.

"Herd immunity by natural infection is not a wise, or possibly even an achievable, goal to pursue," she wrote in defence of the "balanced approach" then being taken by public health officials to "minimize both the risks of public health measures and the risks of COVID-19."

Given recent developments, it is not at all clear if Hinshaw still holds that view. Alas, she too is not available to respond to questions.

What is clear is that no one seems to be in charge, but the UCP is just going to let 'er rip and send under-12s back to school starting on Wednesday. After that, as Neudorf said, I guess they'll see what happens there.

If the plan is really for Kenney not to reappear until after the federal election on Sept. 20, as some think, that could be a problem if he's left no one in charge and infections spread rapidly in schools.

Fasten your seatbelts, Alberta!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Nathan Neudorf/Facebook

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