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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney takes questions after announcing new COVID-19 measures for Alberta in Calgary, on Sept. 15, 2021.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, facing turmoil in his caucus and a health care system on the verge of failing as COVID-19 spreads unchecked, introduced a vaccine passport system that will give businesses the choice between tough restrictions or demanding customers show proof of vaccination or a negative test.

Mr. Kenney declared a state of public-health emergency and said Alberta may run out of intensive-care beds and staff to care for ICU patients within 10 days. Alberta is also reintroducing physical distancing restrictions in public; banning indoor private social gatherings for people over 12 who are not vaccinated; limiting indoor gatherings for those who are vaccinated; requiring all staff, and students in Grade 4 to 12, to wear masks in school; ordering people to work from home; and other measures.

The Premier acknowledged he previously promised his government would not support a vaccine passport system but he said he was left with no choice.

“The government’s first obligation must be to avoid large numbers of preventable deaths. We must deal with the reality that we are facing. We cannot wish it away,” he said. “Morally, ethically and legally, the protection of life must be our paramount concern.”

He said the government made a mistake when it decided over the summer to treat COVID-19 as an “endemic” illness like the flu.

“It is now clear that we were wrong – and for that, I apologize,” he said.

The Premier made the decision after two days of cabinet and United Conservative Party caucus meetings.

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Alberta’s health care system is overrun with patients who are not vaccinated against the virus, forcing Alberta Health Services to cancel surgeries in order to expand ICU capacity beyond its baseline of 173 beds. There were 877 COVID-19 patients in Alberta’s hospitals as of Tuesday, including 218 in ICU.

In all, 270 people were in Alberta’s ICUs Tuesday, according to AHS chief executive Verna Yiu. This is an all-time high and possible only because the health authority added 132 temporary ICU beds to manage the load.

Dr. Yiu said Wednesday her agency will soon ask other provinces if they have ICU space to care for Albertans. Further, AHS will ask other provinces if they have skilled front-line staff who would be willing to work in Alberta.

The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU has increased by 29 per cent in the past seven days, she said. Because of this pressure, AHS is training staff on its triage protocol, which would determine who gets what care if Alberta runs out of ICU beds, equipment like ventilators, medications, and available staff.

“We need to be prepared,” Dr. Yiu said. AHS has not yet activated the triage protocol. “It would be an absolute last resort.”

Roughly 93 per cent of COVID-19 patients in Alberta’s ICUs are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated, and 73 per cent of infected patients in other parts of the hospitals are unvaccinated or partly immunized.

Vaccine passports have boosted immunization efforts in other provinces. In the two weeks after British Columbia announced plans for vaccine passports, its immunization rate for people between the ages of 18 and 29 climbed by more than 4 per cent, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw, said Monday. Further, vaccination rates increased almost 3 per cent for those between 30 and 39, and 1 per cent for those over 50, she said.

In Alberta, 79 per cent of people over 12 have received at least one dose of vaccine, as of Tuesday, compared to 84 per cent of eligible Canadians as of Sept. 4. Further, 71 per cent of eligible Albertans have two shots, compared to 77 per cent across the country. Of Alberta’s total population, 67.4 per cent have one shot and 60.5 per cent have two, according to government data.

Alberta’s latest round of public-health restrictions kick in Sept. 16. Vaccinated people must limit indoor private social gatherings to 10 people, excluding those under 12 years old; and outdoor private social events must be capped at 200 participants, with physical-distancing rules in place. Places of worship must limit attendance to one-third of fire code capacity, masks are mandatory, and physical-distancing applies.

As of Sept. 20, businesses and event organizers must either implement public-health measures or require patrons to provide proof they are vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 within the previous 72 hours. A single dose of vaccine will be acceptable until Oct. 25, provided it was administered two weeks before the person accessed services. Children under 12 are exempt and medical waivers are available.

Restaurants that opt out of the vaccine passport system must close their indoor dining rooms and limit outdoor service to tables of six people, all of whom must be from the same household.

Indoor wedding and funeral services will be limited to 50 people or 50 per cent of fire code capacity, whichever is less; and only 200 people can attend outdoor ceremonies. Indoor receptions are not allowed. However, should the hosting facility demand evidence patrons are vaccinated, Alberta will waive these requirements.

Retailers, libraries, concert venues, bars, casinos and similar establishments must limit capacity to one-third of fire code capacity, institute physical-distancing, and patrons must not mingle with people from other households. These rules will be dropped for operations that use the vaccine passport system.

Rachel Notley, the leader of Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats, said Alberta is in a crisis that the Premier created.

She said Kenney pushed Alberta faster and harder than any other province and refused to act for weeks when it was obvious something had to be done.

“He refused to take responsibility. He blamed in fact low vaccination rates for the fact that he ignored the evidence and went into hiding,” said Ms. Notley.

“What we saw today from the premier was not an apology. It was an embarrassing attempt to duck responsibility.”

Mr. Kenney, in July, said his government would not “facilitate” vaccine passports.

He said he would “discourage businesses” from implementing their own vaccine requirements, which he believed would violate Alberta’s health privacy laws.

Major organizations disregarded his advice, including Alberta Health Services, the province’s largest employer; Canadian Natural Resource Ltd., the oil sands powerhouse; the Calgary Flames; the Edmonton Oilers; and a smattering of smaller businesses. Nine postsecondary institutions in Alberta on Monday said people who do not provide evidence they are vaccinated will not be allowed on their campuses.

The schools said a negative test will only be accepted in lieu for those with medical or other protected grounds detailed in the Alberta Human Rights Act. Previously, three of the nine schools announced vaccine mandates, with exceptions for those who test negative, but did not all demand evidence.

Mr. Kenney, on Sept. 3, reintroduced masking requirements for indoor public spaces, although schools were exempt, and nixed liquor service after 10 p.m. He also announced a $100 incentive for people to get their first or second doses – a decision that has done little to jack up vaccination rates. Critics argued this policy rewarded laggards, especially given the masking and liquor restrictions applied to everyone.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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