AHS receives nearly 20,000 complaints of Albertans not following COVID-19 guidelines

A woman wearing a face mask passes by Vine Arts Wine and Spirits on 17th Avenue S.W. where a sign requires customers to wear face coverings on Friday, July 31, 2020.

Alberta Health Services has received nearly 20,000 reports of alleged infractions of COVID-19 guidelines since the start of the pandemic.

On Friday, the AHS said an online complaints portal and phone line have so far yielded 19,462 reports about Albertans not following regulations regarding self-isolation and other perceived infractions since March.

The number of complaints spiked in April with 7,145 reports — a number that tapered off to 2,376 in July and to 1,240 so far in August.

Some people have condemned the system as a Big-Brother-style “snitch line” while others, including the AHS, have defended it as a necessary tool to encourage compliance and enhance community safety.

The potential does exist for people to abuse those reporting portals, said University of Calgary bioethicist Dr. Juliet Guichon. But she also said those instances are likely rare and on balance, the system is beneficial.

“The population has sacrificed a lot for us to be out and about since June and people have a stake in that,” said Guichon. “It’s evidence people are concerned about the public good.”

While not referring to the reporting system itself, on Thursday Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw called for empathy for those infected with the disease so COVID-19 won’t be driven underground.

“The more COVID drives shame, the harder it will be to prevent because people will be less willing to be forthcoming about their symptoms, less willing to be tested and less willing to be honest with contact tracers,” said Hinshaw.

Complaints over unsafe conduct began with people allegedly returning to Canada from overseas and failing to self-isolate for the required 14 days.

More recently, crowded beaches — such as the Sylvan Lake overcrowding last month — led to further public concerns. Additionally, a number of business have been tagged for operating illegally.

Calgary police have issued 33 tickets for COVID-19 infractions for such things as failing to physically distance — the last one being handed out May 28.

Meanwhile, City of Calgary officials say they’ve received about 300 complaints of alleged face mask compliance violations since a mandatory use bylaw went into effect three weeks ago.

Those complaints from the public have so far resulted in just one ticket being issued by city police for a mask violation, said Matt Zabloski, leader of strategic services for the city’s community standards section.

He said the fact there’s only been a single ticket issued — likely a $50 fine — reflects a preference to educate Calgarians on the bylaw, which makes masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces and within city infrastructure including transit vehicles.

“For us, it’s been more of an issue of education…. That’s been the priority and something we’re trying to instil,” said Zabloski.

He noted children aged under two and people with a medical condition that makes wearing face masks difficult are exempt from the bylaw.

When bylaw officers or police respond to complaints, “the first question is, ‘are you capable of wearing a mask?’” said Zabloski.

A prime concern voiced by Calgarians — often on social media — is a failure to wear masks on public transit. Zabloski noted 19 of the complaints received focus on businesses not providing bylaw signage, which has been resolved through education.

Another 100 inquiries have come from businesses or members of the general public seeking clarification of the bylaw.

The city doesn’t have data on the compliance rate of mask use, but Zabloski said anecdotal observation suggests it’s been high.

“We’re definitely impressed with how Calgarians have picked this up,” he said.

The acceptance of masks has evolved rapidly over the course of the pandemic, said Calgary emergency medicine physician Joe Vipond, an advocate of mandatory masking.

“Earlier on, people wearing masks were sometimes looked on with suspicion. Now, it’s the flip side where you’re likely to be discriminated against if you’re not wearing one,” said Vipond, adding he’s nonetheless pleased with what he sees as a compliance rate of more than 90 per cent.

On Thursday, the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy released a report calling for more public awareness regarding people who are unable to wear face masks due to mental health or other medical reasons.

Masks are considered effective in reducing the spread of potentially virus-carrying airborne droplets exhaled by their wearers.

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on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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