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Alberta is expanding restrictions on social gatherings but is continuing its reliance on voluntary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, even as new infections and hospitalizations overwhelm the health care system.

Premier Jason Kenney said a 15-person limit on gatherings in place in Calgary and Edmonton will now apply to other communities with high infection rates, and he asked people in Calgary and Edmonton to voluntarily stop holding parties altogether. But he ruled out returning to widespread lockdowns, which he described as a violation of people’s rights that does more harm than good.

The province added 609 new cases on Friday, a day after shattering records with 802 new infections. Alberta has among the highest rates of new infections, active cases and hospitalizations in the country, and all of those indicators are accelerating.

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The number of active cases has more than tripled in the past month as hospitals, many dealing with outbreaks of their own, have become stretched to capacity. Some non-urgent operations have been cancelled, and as of Thursday, 40 long-term care or supportive living facilities had outbreaks.

Mr. Kenney said the province will continue with an approach designed to balance the need to respond to the pandemic with protecting the province’s economy — and the livelihoods of Albertans.

“I think Albertans have done admirably well through most of the past nine months, and I don’t think we should judge the collective behaviour of Albertans just based on the past few tough weeks,” Mr. Kenney said. “What we see is a small minority of people who are not following the advice.”

But he warned that if cases continue to climb, the province would have to impose more stringent measures.

Even as infections in the province quickly tracked upward in recent weeks, Mr. Kenney maintained that the province would rely on Albertans' sense of “personal responsibility" to follow public-health guidelines.

Provincial Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw previously noted that a troubling proportion of COVID-19 patients reported going about their lives even after they had symptoms. For example, in Edmonton, 9 per cent went to work while symptomatic, 8 per cent went to retail or services businesses, and 8 per cent attended a social gathering.

Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases expert at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said it’s clear that voluntary measures are not working. She said the province should consider a “short, sharp” lockdown for at least a couple of weeks, which she compared to tripping a circuit breaker.

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Dr. Saxinger said such a lockdown wouldn’t necessarily need to be as severe as what happened in the spring — for example, schools could probably remain open — but it would need to be widespread enough to have a significant impact on infection rates.

“You’re trying to interrupt transmission in the community abruptly so that the case numbers have a chance to come down,” Dr. Saxinger said. “You have a chance to catch up on where things are happening and design your targeted strategy.”

Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health in Toronto, said it’s misguided to resist pandemic measures in a bid to protect the economy. Not only does it increase the risk of infections and deaths, he said, but it continues to hurt businesses that are open at limited capacity amid uncertainty over whether new lockdowns will happen anyway.

“More people are going to be harmed by this inaction than would have been if there was more deliberate action that was really focused on maintaining the health and well-being of the community," Dr. Sinha said.

“The economy will not succeed unless you get this virus under control, and as long as we try to negotiate with this virus rather than actually just putting it in its place, we’re just going to watch these numbers continue to climb.”

Experts say fresh lockdowns would buy governments time to increase testing capacity and contact tracing. The contact tracing system has become overwhelmed in Alberta, prompting the province to limit those investigations to people in long-term care homes, health care facilities and schools.

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Anyone else who tests positive will be asked to inform anyone they’ve come into contact with, and organizers of events will be told to contact attendees.

Alberta’s contact-tracing team has about 800 people, including those who work part-time or have been redeployed from other positions. The province is hiring about 380 more staff members, Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services, said earlier this week.

Even before this week, the system was struggling under the workload and increasing resistance among some patients to talk to the contact tracers.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in the number of tough conversations that our contact tracers have had to have over the last couple of months,” said Angela Jacobs, an associate manager of notifiable diseases at Alberta Health Services. “We’re just seeing a lot of fatigue and frustration with COVID, and that’s really making people put up some barriers.”

People who refuse to co-operate or are abusive are in the minority, she said, but it does happen daily.

“It can get pretty heated,” Ms. Jacobs said.

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