The Alberta government is offering $100 to convince unvaccinated people to sign up for a shot to protect against COVID-19 and reintroducing several measures, including a mask mandate, as surging infections threaten to push hospital admissions to a level not seen at any other time during the pandemic.
Premier Jason Kenney again rejected a mandatory vaccine passport system similar to those introduced in other provinces. In addition to the vaccine incentives and masks, the government is also imposing a 10 p.m. curfew for liquor sales at restaurants and pubs and is recommending – but not requiring – unvaccinated people to limit their social activities.
Alberta, which has the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the lowest vaccination rates among the provinces, dropped nearly all of its public-health measures over the summer. Mr. Kenney, who recently returned from vacation, previously resisted imposing any additional restrictions to curb infections as he dismissed the potential for a severe fourth wave.
The Premier and his Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, argued there was less of a need to control or even track infections because vaccines meant COVID-19 cases would no longer result in significant hospital admissions. But they were forced to acknowledge Friday that vaccines had not, in fact, reduced the burden on the health care system as they had predicted.
Hospital and intensive-care admissions more than doubled in the past two weeks and 95 per cent of the province’s ICU beds were full as of Friday morning. New modelling showed hospital admissions in Alberta could surpass the peak of the previous waves before the end of the month, and the head of Alberta’s health authority warned staffing shortages have made the situation worse. Many non-urgent surgeries are being cancelled across the province.
Mr. Kenney pleaded with anyone who hasn’t received either a first or second dose of a vaccine to get the shot as soon as possible.
“If you are unvaccinated, it is urgent that you protect yourself, our hospitals and our entire community by getting the benefit of this miracle of modern medicine,” Mr. Kenney told reporters.
“If you have concerns about the safety of the vaccines, please speak to your medical doctor or pharmacist. And if you just haven’t gotten around to it, for the love of God, please get vaccinated now.”
Alberta announced a lottery earlier this summer to entice people to get vaccinated, with three $1-million payouts and other prizes, though vaccine appointments have since slowed to a crawl. The province is administering just a few thousand first doses a day and demand for second shots has also dropped off considerably. About 300,000 people have received a first shot but have yet to get their second.
About 78 per cent of Albertans over the age of 12 have received at least one dose and 70 per cent are fully vaccinated. Nearly 1.5 million people in the province, including children who aren’t yet eligible, have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.
The newly announced incentive will provide a $100 gift card to adults who get their first or second shot before Oct. 14. People who were vaccinated before Friday don’t qualify.
Mr. Kenney dismissed criticism that he was rewarding bad behaviour, arguing that the government needs to try something new to boost vaccine rates.
“This is not a time for moral judgments; this is a time to get people vaccinated,” he said.
The Premier pointed to other jurisdictions that have used incentives to increase vaccine uptake, such as Colorado, which has both a lottery and a gift-card program called “Colorado Comeback Cash.” Colorado’s current vaccine rates are slightly lower than in Alberta.
Academic research that has looked at the effectiveness of such programs has shown mixed results.
Arash Naeim, a professor at UCLA who has researched incentives with the school’s COVID-19 Health and Politics Project, said even this late in the vaccine program, surveys have shown there are still people who are willing to be vaccinated but haven’t gotten their shot yet. He said cash incentives can help nudge some of them to get vaccinated, depending on their reasons for waiting – for example, younger people who may be less motivated or people who face financial barriers, such as transportation or work pressures.
“I think as long as there’s a gap between the people that say that they are willing to get vaccinated and then do, there’s opportunity,” he said.
Dr. Naeim said it makes sense to use a combination of strategies, including incentives such as lotteries as well as tying vaccination to increased freedoms.
The Leader of Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats, Rachel Notley, said the government was using vaccinated Albertans’ money to pay people who have refused to follow public-health advice.
Ms. Notley repeated her call for the government to implement a mandatory vaccine passport system.
Mr. Kenney, who has repeatedly ruled out a vaccine passport, announced Friday that the province is developing an electronic system that will allow people to prove their vaccination status if a business requires it. He had previously warned that it would be illegal for a business to ask for such information.
As infections increased in recent weeks, some municipalities, school boards, universities and businesses have implemented their own masking and vaccine requirements.
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