Alberta’s decision to impose tougher COVID-19 restrictions after resisting that option for weeks was driven by projections that the province’s intensive care units would be so overwhelmed that doctors could be forced to start rationing care within a month.
Premier Jason Kenney laid out that dire scenario on Wednesday as he explained why his government is imposing a suite of new public health measures, including moving K-12 classes online, shutting down restaurant patios and forcing non-essential businesses that have three or more COVID-19 infections to close.
Mr. Kenney asked people who are opposed to public-health restrictions — a group that includes members of his own United Conservative Party caucus who have publicly criticized such measures — to think about the prospect of someone they cared about being denied care because the hospitals cannot cope.
“We’re not telling people this to create unnecessary fear,” Mr. Kenney said Wednesday, after using a televised address to announce the new rules the night before.
“We’re just trying to be straight up with Albertans about where we are.”
Alberta has the highest COVID-19 rates in North America and is among the few provinces in Canada where the number of daily infections is increasing. Alberta has about twice the active infections per capita as Ontario.
There were 146 COVID-19 patients in the province’s ICUs as of Wednesday, a slightly lower number than in recent days, but still about twice as many as a month ago. Mr. Kenney said there are also 60 non-COVID patients in ICUs, which together puts the province above the capacity it had before the pandemic.
Health officials say they can expand the province’s capacity to 425 ICU beds, but that would require the cancellation of most non-essential surgeries and medical procedures. Alberta Health Services released a triage document last week that would guide decisions to ration care by focusing on patients with the highest likelihood to survive the following year.
Mr. Kenney’s government had closed indoor dining at restaurants and imposed a number of other restrictions a month ago, but had resisted further restrictions even as infections exploded. The new measures are the most severe the province has seen since the first wave a year ago.
The Premier has chided people who continue to defy the public-health restrictions, including protesters at anti-lockdown rallies that have been a regular feature of some Alberta cities and a rodeo, held last weekend, that drew large crowds to a site near Bowden in flagrant violation of the ban on large outdoor events.
The opposition he has faced within the UCP caucus includes more than a dozen MLAs publicly criticizing the province’s public-health orders last April.
Mr. Kenney has played down that opposition, saying it amounted to healthy debate. He said on Wednesday that politics was not driving his government’s response to the pandemic.
“We do, however, obviously have to be mindful of the broader context of public opinion in Alberta, about people’s willingness to comply with the rules,” he said.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, there’s no point in adopting a policy that will only invite widespread non-compliance.”
One of the signees of a letter protesting restrictions last month – UCP MLA Nate Horner – said understands there’s a risk that Alberta hospitals become overwhelmed.
“I know we all need to pull together,” Mr. Horner, the MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, said Wednesday. “I don’t want to do anything other than support the decisions that have been made. That being said, we still do have very rigorous debate within caucus.”
Mr. Horner said he signed the original letter to let his constituents know he was advocating for a regional approach to restrictions in caucus discussions.
“I represent a very rural riding that over the last 14 months has had periods when there’s been very little COVID in vast areas,” he said. “Skip the Dishes and DoorDash aren’t a thing here.”
Mr. Horner noted he fielded about 70 calls from unhappy constituents Wednesday – many who are facing the loss of work and business income, are concerned about schools being closed for two weeks, and don’t understand why the federal government hasn’t implemented stricter border controls.
“A lot of them understand the severity of the issue. They’ve seen the cases rise – they know the situation has changed,” he said.
Other MLAs who signed last month’s letter, such as Mark Smith in Drayton Valley-Devon, Jason Stephan of Red Deer-South, and Miranda Rosin of Banff-Kananaskis, posted the live feed of Mr. Kenney announcing new public health measures on their Facebook pages – without comment.
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