The Alberta government is set to announce additional COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday as it struggles to respond to an explosive third wave that has left the province with the highest infection rates in North America.
Premier Jason Kenney said public-health measures are being ignored by too many people in his province, including the organizers of a weekend rodeo that doubled as a protest against the rules. Many cities in Alberta have also had regular anti-lockdown protests and more than a quarter of Mr. Kenney’s own United Conservative Party caucus have publicly opposed pandemic restrictions.
Mr. Kenney, who has taken pride in his government adopting a lighter touch than other provinces when it comes to infection-control measures, warned that Alberta’s health care system would soon become overwhelmed if the current trajectory continued. The province added a record 2,433 infections on Saturday – which translates to the highest per capita daily total of any province during the pandemic – and has roughly twice the number of active cases per capita as Ontario.
“It is as astounding as it is aggravating that 14 months into this, more than 2,000 deaths in Alberta alone, that we still have many people in the province who don’t even believe that COVID is real, who think that it’s a big government conspiracy or hoax,” he said.
“The reason we are at this critical stage of the pandemic in Alberta, with record high daily case counts and intensive care numbers, is precisely because, for whatever reason, too many Albertans are ignoring the rules we have in place.”
He did not say what new measures his government is considering.
There were 154 people with COVID-19 in intensive care as of Monday, exceeding the peak of the second wave in late December, though Mr. Kenney said the province has the capacity to accommodate many more. Health-care officials say they can expand to 425 ICU beds if needed.
Mr. Kenney’s government loosened public-health measures beginning in February as it permitted restaurants to open, expanded capacity for retailers and churches, opened salons, and allowed more activities in gyms. As the rules were relaxed, infections began to climb.
In early April, the province pulled back by closing indoor dining (patios remain open). Last week, the government shut down in-person classes for junior and high school students and closed indoor fitness activities in hot spot areas.
The province now has the highest rate of new infections of anywhere in North America and stands in contrast to provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, where infections are falling. Compared with G20 countries, Alberta would rank second just behind Argentina.
Ontario had at least 889 people in intensive care as of Monday, a slight decrease from a day earlier, though the Health Department cautioned that about 10 per cent of hospitals did not submit data over the weekend. The province reported 3,436 new cases as the weekly average for new infections continues to drop.
Health officials in B.C. and Ontario said Monday that they are looking at how to shorten the interval between doses, which was stretched to 16 weeks as part of a national strategy to give first doses to as many people as possible. An increase in deliveries from several manufacturers in the coming weeks has fuelled optimism that provinces could move to that second round of vaccinations much sooner.
Ontario officials have also has asked the federal vaccine advisory group to examine the possibility of mixing doses between the first and second shots pending results from a British study examining the idea.
Alberta has yet to see the same crisis in hospitals as places like Ontario, though experts have warned that it’s only a matter of time before the province’s hospitals are pushed to the brink. Alberta has prepared a triage plan to ration care if hospitals are overwhelmed, though health officials say they don’t believe it will come to that.
Even if infections eventually start falling, hospital and ICU admissions would continue increasing for at least a couple of weeks because it takes time for someone to become sick enough to require medical care.
Mr. Kenney rejected the notion that his government waited too long to act, even as public health experts were warning for weeks that the province was headed for a catastrophe. While he maintains that his government was right not to follow other provinces in imposing strict lockdowns, he also argued that Alberta has had tough restrictions throughout the pandemic.
“We have taken extraordinary measures,” he said. “We see that even though our public health measures are very similar to our neighbouring provinces, our cases are going up and theirs are going down.”
Mr. Kenney has focused on rolling out vaccines, which he cast as the province’s ticket out of the pandemic and to the “best summer ever.” The Premier announced that teachers and school support staff would be eligible for vaccines as of Tuesday after weeks of rejecting the idea of giving them priority, and he said the government would lay out the final phase of the vaccine rollout for the general public later this week.
The Opposition New Democrats have urged the government to impose more rigorous public-health measures and on Monday called for stronger fines and penalties for people who break the rules. The NDP wants minimum fines for violations tripled to $3,600, as well as new offences for obstructing public health orders
“We need action and we can’t afford to sit back idly while people put our community at risk,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
Joe Vipond, an emergency room doctor who has been a vocal critic of the Alberta government’s handling of the pandemic, said the government should have seen the third wave coming and taken steps to prevent it. Failing to act sooner will mean that the province will require more severe measures that will need to last longer.
“This is what we call the predictable and preventable wave, because we’ve already done this twice before,” said Dr. Vipond, who is among many health care workers and experts who have called for a “COVID zero” strategy to eliminate infections.
He said vaccines have made COVID-19 less deadly, but he said many people are still ending up in hospital and a sizable proportion of people who are infected will become what are known as “long-haulers,” with long-lasting symptoms that can be debilitating.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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