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Alberta is bracing for the Omicron COVID-19 wave by giving away test kits and boosting booster eligibility, but is also relaxing rules to allow both vaccinated and unvaccinated to mix at private gatherings.

Premier Jason Kenney says high vaccination rates also allow for more households to get together.

“We think this is a reasonable, very modest change that allows people to have small, responsible family gatherings in line with what the rest of the country is doing, in fact, in a way that is even more stringent than the rest of the country,” Kenney said Wednesday.

Provinces expand access to free COVID-19 rapid testing kits

Albertans had been permitted to socialize privately at a home, but only two households could be present with a cap of 10 people ages 12 and older. No gatherings were allowed for the unvaccinated.

The 10-person limit remains in place, but visitors can now be from multiple households, either vaccinated or unvaccinated. Anyone under 18 isn’t part of the new cap.

Almost 90 per cent of Albertans 12 and over have at least one shot of vaccine. Almost 85 per cent are fully vaccinated. There have been 93,000 doses distributed to kids between five and 11.

Kenney said another factor in loosening rules was that existing ones are being ignored.

“We have to be mindful after 21 months of this [pandemic] of the willingness of the public to actually comply with the rules,” he said.

“Rules on paper that are not observed by the public are meaningless, pointless and just undermine confidence in the public health measures.”

Alberta had 50 case of the Omicron variant on Tuesday.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, said information-gathering on Omicron is still in the early stages.

She said the variant seems to have less severe outcomes, but also appears to be far more transmissible than the Delta variant, which is cause for concern for a health system that experienced a capacity crunch in recent waves of the pandemic.

“Even if the risk of each individual case needing ICU care is lower, if the total number of cases is much larger, the total acute-care impact would be expected to be significant,” said Hinshaw.

She said health managers are learning from the mistakes of the fourth wave. Kenney lifted almost all public health restrictions on July 1 only to have Delta cases swamp intensive care wards. The province was forced to call in military nurses to help and thousands of scheduled surgeries were cancelled.

“As we all know, that move was too early and the fourth wave had a devastating impact on our health-care system,” said Hinshaw.

“I cannot overstate the importance of having learned from that experience and the need to be extremely cautious as we learn about the Omicron variant.”

Kenney also announced that, starting Friday, more than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be made available for free at select health-care sites and pharmacies. The kits will also be made available at more schools and for vulnerable populations.

As well, starting immediately, anyone 50 and older and all health-care workers who had their second COVID-19 shot six months ago or more can book a third dose for extra protection.

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the test kits and expanded booster eligibility are good news, but she questioned the rationale for a change in gathering rules.

Notley said Kenney, facing low poll numbers and unrest in his United Conservative caucus, is choosing to risk public health by introducing the change to buy popularity with anti-vaxxers.

“This sends the completely wrong message,” said Notley.

“We know that vaccines, double vaccines, and booster shots are critical tools in protecting our hospital services for all Albertans,” said Notley.

“Inviting unvaccinated Albertans to gather with limited restrictions is a reckless step in the wrong direction.”

Alberta’s other measures to reduce COVID-19 spread include a vaccine passport to enter non-essential businesses and a broad indoor mask mandate.

There were about 4,000 active COVID-19 cases in the province on Tuesday. Some 366 people were in hospital with the infection, including 73 in intensive care.

That’s a fraction compared with the height of the fourth wave, but still a strain, given a capacity baseline pre-pandemic of 173 ICU beds.

Health Minister Jason Copping has said there was a surgical backlog of 68,000 before the pandemic, but that figure ballooned to more than 81,000 in the fourth wave. He anticipates it will take until the middle of next year to get back to the 68,000 level.

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