Alberta is moving all grade-school classes online and closing or limiting a wide array of businesses as it attempts to reverse rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections that have turned the province into a North American hot spot and threaten to overwhelm the health-care system.
Premier Jason Kenney used a televised address on Tuesday evening to lay out a series of new restrictions that are the most severe since the first wave a year ago. A day earlier, he acknowledged that previous attempts to respond with less-stringent measures had not worked as too many people in his province are ignoring public health orders.
The response to COVID-19 has been particularly divisive in Alberta, with anti-lockdown protests now a regular feature of many cities and towns, including a rodeo that drew large crowds to an area near Bowden this past weekend. More than a dozen members of Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus have objected to public health measures.
Mr. Kenney said the province has attempted to take a more balanced approach than other jurisdictions, but he said the increasing hospital admissions, driven by the spike in cases, meant his government had to act.
“If exponential growth of COVID-19 in Alberta continues, it would begin to push the outer limits of even our surge and expanded hospital capacity within weeks,” he said.
“We will not permit our health care system to be overwhelmed. We must not and we will not force our doctors and nurses to decide who gets care and who doesn’t.”
Schools will switch to online learning beginning this Friday and won’t return until May 25, after the long weekend.
Starting Wednesday, outdoor gatherings will be limited to five people, gyms must close, funerals will be limited to 10 people, retailers must operate at 10-per-cent capacity and postsecondary schools must switch to online classes. Churches will be limited to 15 people.
Workplaces with three or more consecutive cases of COVID-19 will be forced to close for 10 days, though that doesn’t apply to work camps or essential services.
Restaurant patios have remained open even as in-person dining was closed, but those patios must close as of Sunday night. Salons, tattoo parlours and other personal-services businesses must close at the same time.
Mr. Kenney said anyone who can stay home needs to do that.
“Nobody wants to be here, especially after 14 months with multiple waves of this pandemic, but our commitment to the health and safety of Albertans must come first,” he said.
Alberta has led the country in per capita infections for weeks and has been unable to reverse that trend even as other provinces have successfully bent their curves downward. The province now has the highest per capita infection rate in North America and rivals regions of the world with the worst COVID-19 rates.
The province’s health-care system has been strained in recent weeks, though it has yet to see the same crisis that is playing out in Ontario, where patients are routinely ferried to other cities in helicopters as health-care officials scramble to find spare intensive care beds.
But medical experts have warned that the situation in Alberta will only get worse. Even if the measures announced Tuesday finally turn the province’s infections around, hospital and ICU admissions are expected to continue increasing for at least a couple of weeks.
There were 150 people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s intensive care units as of Tuesday and Mr. Kenney said the health-care system can expand its capacity to handle 425, though that would require the mass cancellation of non-urgent procedures. Alberta Health Services, the province’s centralized health authority, published a triage document last week that would guide decisions if hospitals became so overwhelmed that doctors were forced to decide whom to treat and whom to turn away from the ICU. AHS officials maintain they don’t believe the triage protocol will ever be used.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Mr. Kenney is undermining the ability of people and small businesses to plan by saying restrictions will only last a short time.
“The Premier is continuing his pattern of over-promising, and under-delivering, by making false promises and creating false hope – setting up further challenges and disappointments in the weeks to come,” she said.
“I don’t think there’s a person out there that thinks two weeks is going to do the trick.”
The Premier has rejected claims that his government has moved too slowly in the current wave, arguing that the government proceeded cautiously to bring down infections while inflicting the least amount of pain on the public.
Christine Gibson, a family doctor in Calgary, said it was “encouraging” that the government appeared to be listening to the science and “understanding that we are in dire straights.”
However, she was hoping for more stringent measures”Some of the measures are inconsistent,” she said. “The issue with Alberta and why we’ve had such different results is because of inconsistent messaging that isn’t really sensible.”
For example, she questioned why places of worship are still open to 15 people.
”Why? That makes no sense,” Dr. Gibson said. “It is really quite arbitrary….That piece of it isn’t grounded in science.”
The government loosened public health measures from the second wave beginning in February as it permitted restaurants to open, expanded capacity for retailers and churches, opened salons, and allowed more activities in gyms.
In early April, as infections and hospital admissions accelerated again, the province pulled back by closing indoor dining, though patios remained open. Last week, the government shut down in-person classes for junior and high school students and closed indoor fitness activities in hot spots, though many schools were already closed in those areas.
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