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Premier responds to Globe and Mail report that province directed AHS to remove COVID, flu references in ads

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday it had obtained documents showing the Alberta government directed Alberta Health Services to remove mention of COVID-19 and influenza from advertisements for this season’s immunization campaign.

The Globe said it had obtained those documents through an access to information request. CBC News has not seen the documents.

Asked for comment by reporters on Thursday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith did not dispute the report. She said coming out of the respiratory virus season last year, COVID-19, influenza, RSV, adenovirus and other viruses surged and ebbed.

“This respiratory virus season, we want to make sure people knew what they should be going and looking at for immunizations, there’s vaccines for all three — RSV, COVID and influenza,” Smith said.

“It was in our press release that we mentioned that people should talk to their family doctor about it. And it seems … we’re also spending almost the same amount of money this year on the campaign as we did last year.”

A new RSV vaccine was approved for Canadians aged 60 years and older earlier this year, but it has a price tag of around $300. The vaccines for COVID-19 and influenza, by contrast, are free.

The Globe and Mail story reported that in an email dated Sept. 28, Alberta Health communications director Chris Bourdeau asked AHS officials to remove the government’s logo from campaign posters.

Bourdeau also asked officials to replace “both influenza and COVID with just ‘fall immunizations,'” and on Oct. 3 wrote that the desire “was not to indicate the types of vaccines available, just that they are,” according to the Globe.

Asked to confirm details from the Globe and Mail’s reporting, Alberta Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said “what was actually happening” was that the province has gone from a pandemic state to an endemic state.

“When you’re in an endemic state, then all of the respiratory viruses that are out there are treated in the same manner, and so the language and the documentation and the communication has to be in alignment,” she said.

When asked by CBC News to respond to the details included in the Globe story, Dr. James Talbot, an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, and the province’s former chief medical officer of health, said the behaviour described is “not just outrageous, it’s idiotic.”

“To tell Alberta Health Services it has to cut out what the benefits of taking the vaccine are, is to make any kind of campaign that they put out a waste of money,” Talbot said.

Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the faculty of law and the School of Public Health at the U of A, said the impression that the province is trying to distance itself from specific language about vaccines is “problematic.”

“You want your public health messaging to be clear, to be actionable, and to be science-informed. And I fear that they’re moving away from that approach,” he told CBC News.

Caulfield said behaviour like that described in the Globe and Mail story has real-world consequences.

“Unfortunately, I think misinformation about the COVID vaccine … has started to have a real impact on vaccination attitudes. We know this from research,” he said.

“Unless you have a clear message from your health-care system, from your government, the situation is only going to get worse.”

Alberta’s doctors have been raising the alarm in recent weeks as respiratory viruses have been surging. Approximately 22 per cent of Albertans have been immunized against influenza, the lowest rate in more than a decade.

Smith was asked by a reporter what she thought was causing the downturn, and why people might be so much more skeptical than they’ve been in years.

“I don’t know,” Smith said in response.

Shortly after Thursday’s news conference ended, Alberta Health Services issued a public health announcement with the headline “Spread joy, not germs: stay healthy this holiday season.” It specifically mentions both COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.

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