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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to media during the Western Premiers' conference, in Edmonton on June 27, 2019.

The Canadian Press

Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta has been among the world leaders in staunching the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, but at a staggering financial cost the province cannot afford to repeat should there be a second wave.

Kenney says the key to prevention will be ramped up testing, border screening and a focus on the protecting the highest risk group – seniors and those with underlying conditions.

“The most important strategy as we move forward is building a wall of defence around the most vulnerable,” Kenney told the house Wednesday in a speech updating his government’s response to the pandemic.

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He noted the province has made changes to provide personal protective equipment and financial aid to care facilities, along with new rules that prevent staff from working in more than one continuing care centre.

Kenney said Alberta’s success against the virus began when officials heeded the early warning signs of the pandemic late in 2019 to begin stocking up on supplies that have allowed it to be a leader in per capita testing.

There have been 243,000 tests conducted with 2.8 per cent testing positive for COVID-19.

There are 45 people in hospital with the virus, five in intensive care.

Alberta has recorded 139 deaths.

Kenney pushed back on critics who said the province overreacted and was too strict on measures to enforce social distancing and putting limits on business.

He said Alberta has just over three deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 10 in Germany, 30 in the United States, 39 in Sweden, 40 in France, 54 in Italy, 55 in the United Kingdom, 57 in Spain, and 81 in Belgium.

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“For some members of the public who say we should simply emulate (the more liberal lockdown measures of Sweden), they must be prepared to defend a death rate 12 times higher per capita than what we’ve experienced in Alberta,” Kenney said.

Alberta has now begun reopening its economy, with retailers, restaurants, golf courses, farmers markets, daycares, barber shops, hair salons, museums, art galleries, and places of worships allowed to reopen with restrictions. Non-urgent surgeries have resumed. Outdoor gatherings remain limited to no more than 50 people.

Kenney said the affect on businesses, jobs and spending has been profound with this year’s budget deficit soaring to a projected $20 billion.

He said the numbers show the average age of COVID deaths in Alberta is 83 and that the risk of COVID death for those under the age of 65 is much lower.

“What we are learning is that younger people, while not completely immune, have a rate of mortality related to COVID that is no higher than their general mortality rate for other illnesses,” Kenney said.

He said given that rate, future measures to stop COVID must seek to protect those at risk while avoiding wholesale shutdowns of the economy.

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“We cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic as well as the mental health and physiological health of the broader population for potentially a year through measures (to combat) an influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the most elderly, the immune-compromised and those with co-morbidities,” said Kenney.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley agreed a second wave must be mitigated, but said Kenney’s government must do better.

She said the province took too long to act on Opposition demands for more safeguards for care centres and failed to protect workers at meat plants exposed to unsafe work conditions, leading to outbreaks.

She urged Kenney to provide income protection for low-income workers who will otherwise, when faced between self-isolating and feeding their families, will go to work even if they are showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“This is not just a human rights thing and income support and an anti-poverty thing,” Notley told the house.

“It is also a public health thing, because people, particularly minimum-wage workers, cannot afford to lose two weeks (pay) every time they get a cold,” said Notley.

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Also Wednesday, auditor general Doug Wylie said his office will examine government spending on the pandemic, focusing on the outcomes for the added spending.

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