“One thing I think we’re learning, epidemiologically, is that that population has a very high level of immune resistance, of immunity and resilience against an influenza of this nature,” Kenney told the legislature Wednesday.
This week the premier repeatedly made comments downplaying the threat of the virus to the general population, referring to COVID-19 as an “influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the most elderly.”
Kenney’s words come amid his push to continue reopening the province. Alberta is set to lift its provincial public health emergency on June 15. As of May 29, there have been almost 7,000 test-positive cases there, with 143 deaths.
WATCH: More businesses reopen in Alberta. Story continues below.
There are still 652 “active” cases in Alberta.
“We cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic — as well as the mental health and physiological health of the broader population — for potentially a year for an influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the elderly and the immunocompromised,” the premier said Wednesday.
On Thursday, Kenney walked back the comments.
“I was not trying to provide a comprehensive scientific exposition on the nature of this disease but rather that I believe Alberta has done very well,” he told reporters.
But here’s why experts say referring to COVID-19 as being “like the flu” is wrong — and can be incredibly dangerous.
Two totally different viruses
University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health professor Stephen Hoption Cann says it’s “wishful thinking” for Kenney to assume there’s resistance or resilience in the community without a lot of scientific proof.
“Albertans are healthy, as are generally most Canadians living in a good economy and we have good health care,” he told HuffPost. “But that’s not going to protect you and that’s not going to protect certain populations against the COVID-19 infection.”
Cann said it’s important political figures like Kenney distinguish between influenza and the coronavirus, because it’s problematic if people think the flu vaccine or other treatments will work for COVID-19.
“A lot of people take that at face value if they’ve had the flu vaccine — maybe they think they’re protected,” he said.
COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus, not an influenza virus.
At the start of the pandemic, there was lots of analysis around the key differences. While symptoms are similar between the two, the ways the viruses spread and attack the body are different and, as Cann noted, the flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), influenza is much less deadly than COVID-19. Research also suggests that COVID-19 has a lot more pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission than influenza viruses. So people can spread COVID-19 without even realizing they have it. Meanwhile, while influenza can spread before symptoms show, it spreads most easily three or four days after symptoms begin, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And while research is still being done, early investigations show that COVID-19 also produces many more severe cases than the seasonal flu. Early research from WHO and Chinese scientists found that 80 per cent of infected people had mild to moderate disease, 13.8 per cent had severe symptoms, and 6.1 per cent had life-threatening episodes of respiratory failure, septic shock, or organ failure.
“I was not trying to provide a comprehensive scientific exposition on the nature of this disease but rather that I believe Alberta has done very well.”
That’s one of the reasons why we’re being encouraged to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 now, when we aren’t usually encouraged to do so during flu season. That’s because COVID-19 has a greater risk of severe symptoms.
Even Alberta’s top doctor’s stance has diverged from that of the premier. During media appearances this week, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reiterated COVID-19 is much more dangerous.
“While this is often compared to influenza, our current COVID-19 death toll of 142 in Alberta is one and a half times higher than the highest annual influenza death number in the last five years.” she said Thursday. “And we have never taken such measures to prevent influenza from circulating.”
The Alberta Health Services website also breaks down key differences between the two.
“COVID-19 causes severe disease in a higher percentage of cases than seasonal influenza. Estimates of mortality in COVID-19 cases depend on many things, but on average they range from about 1-2 deaths per 100 people infected,” the site reads. “By comparison, seasonal influenza is deadly in about 1 in every 1000 who are infected.”
Kenney pointed out that Alberta’s average death age from the virus is 83 as a reason why the general public shouldn’t worry about severe impacts, but research shows COVID-19 poses a threat to a variety of people.
While public health officials have identified people over 65 and the immunocompromised as being most at risk, other vulnerable groups include those facing economic, health-care and communication barriers, as well as those with unstable housing.
People of all ages around the world have died and experienced severe symptoms from the virus, and there’s even a new rare Kawaski-like syndrome appearing in some infected children.
Shades of Trump
Kenney isn’t the first political leader to draw criticism for linking coronavirus and influenza.
Most notably, U.S. president Donald Trump has repeatedly drawn attention to influenza death rates as a way to diminish the impact of COVID-19.
“Last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on... Think about that,” Trump tweeted on March 9.
Since then, over 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
On Twitter, Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan accused Kenney of “tearing a page from Trump’s playbook” with this week’s comments.
And other Albertans were quick to call Kenney out on social media for his own inaccurate comments and spreading “misinformation” by repeatedly calling coronavirus an influenza.
Kenney is the only premier to see his approval rating slip over the course of the pandemic. A recent poll placed his approval rating at 48 per cent, second-last among Canadian provincial premiers.
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