Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says COVID-19 vaccine bookings have nearly tripled in the province since he announced a passport system.
Mr. Kenney said in a Facebook live video that nearly 25,000 vaccine appointments were recorded by Thursday night.
The government’s “restrictions exemption program” allows businesses and venues to operate without capacity limits and other public-health measures if they require proof of vaccination or a negative test result from anyone entering.
“This is a crisis of the unvaccinated. That is not to stigmatize people but to point out that individual choices have broader social consequences,” Mr. Kenney said in the video.
“If you choose not to become vaccinated, you are taking the risk of higher level of transmission to people, including the vulnerable, but also a much, much higher risk of hospitalization.”
On Friday, the government said 28,158 COVID-19 shots were given on Thursday, which it called a “sharp rise” from 9,750 shots the day prior.
Eighty per cent of eligible Albertans have received their first dose of vaccine and 72 per cent are fully immunized.
The passport program is to start Monday and is not mandatory.
Mr. Kenney had opposed a vaccine passport over what he said were privacy concerns, but now says it has become a necessary measure to protect Alberta’s overwhelmed hospitals.
The province reported 2,020 new cases Friday, bringing active infections to 19,201. The province had not exceeded a single-day case count of more than 2,000 since early May.
There were 911 people hospitalized for COVID-19, including 215 in intensive care.
Prior to the passport program, the United Conservative government launched two lotteries and a $100 incentive program to encourage vaccine uptake, which Mr. Kenney said resulted in small upticks.
Lorian Hardcastle, a health law and policy professor at the University of Calgary, said Alberta’s program is likely to encourage vaccine uptake, but a broader and succinct model would have been more effective.
Having the option to opt-out of the program, and with rules varying across different settings, it’s “hard to keep it all sorted in your mind,” she said. “The more layers of complexity you have, the harder it is for people to understand, and then you run into compliance and enforcement problems.”
The bigger issue with Alberta’s COVID-19 response is how responsibility has been off-loaded on businesses, municipalities and schools to make their own public-health decisions, Prof. Hardcastle added.
Sarah Mackey, with Vaccine Hunters Alberta, a volunteer-driven group that directs Albertans to available vaccine appointments, said they are receiving a flood of messages from people asking how they can help their friends book jabs.
In conjunction with the new passport system, Mackey said Alberta Health Services should increase outreach, access and education for people who are now considering getting vaccinated.
“It definitely feels, right now, like it’s harder to access vaccines than it was in the spring, even though the people who are still waiting to be vaccinated are the ones who need it to be as easy as possible,” Ms. Mackey said.
“So we would love to see AHS having more walk-in hours available [and] different schedules for people who maybe work shift work or have unpredictable schedules we know from past experience that it’s going to be marginalized people who are the least likely to have access and will be struggling.”
NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley is urging Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative government to do more to support small-business owners who plan to use the passport system.
“Businesses have endured through so much during this pandemic. Their bottom lines have been hammered,” Ms. Notley said. “There is absolutely no reason for the UCP to stall or refuse to provide them funding and enforcement support right now, especially if they are genuine in their push for a vaccine passport system that keeps Albertans safe.”
The NDP is pressing the government to reintroduce a grant to support the hiring of additional staff and to pass a ministerial order to allow peace and bylaw officers to enforce restrictions, with a fine of up to $3,600 for non-compliance.
As an emergency alert blared across the province notifying Albertans of another round of public-health restrictions, some felt a range of emotions: anger, confusion, exhaustion.
Edmonton mother Amanah Khursheed remembers looking at her husband. “Here we go again,” she said as her phone lit up Wednesday evening.
The notification told her that Alberta has declared a state of public-health emergency to protect the health care system.
“Every few months we go into lockdown and we’re hearing false promises from our leaders,” Ms. Khursheed said in an interview. “The whole pandemic … I don’t think, from the beginning, was managed right.”
Ms. Khursheed said a close friend contracted COVID-19 and was put on a ventilator. “It’s nerve-racking every single day when you’re sending your children to school, and then you’re hearing a close friend was in [intensive care].”
Calgarian Jake Hughes, a 28-year-old business development representative, said he’s “exhausted and demoralized” after 19 months of poor provincial leadership.
He said he has thought about leaving Alberta for another province.
“It’s kind of sad that we’re – I wouldn’t say the laughingstock, but look how bad Alberta is doing compared to the rest of the country,” Mr. Hughes said. “It feels like everyone prioritizes business and money over people’s lives.”
While he’s supportive of the new restrictions, Mr. Hughes said he’s worried they will affect his job stability and income, considering he works with many small businesses.
“If we just kept the restrictions going forward in the summer, where minimal interactions were allowed, we probably could have gotten through this fourth wave with a lot less of a spike,” said Mr. Hughes. “Since the beginning of this pandemic, it’s been fumble after fumble.”
Retiree Desmond Clark of Calgary said the array of measures announced Wednesday were confusing. And Alberta’s version of a vaccine passport system, which Mr. Kenney calls a “restriction exemption program,” is littered with contradictions.
He said it should be simple: You prove you’re vaccinated, or you’re not allowed entry. Instead, there are varied restrictions depending on an individual’s immunization status.
Mr. Clark said he has lost any respect for Mr. Kenney’s government.
“When it comes to leadership, I’ve always been of the opinion that while I may not agree with something, I can respect the fact that something is being done,” he said. “But when they don’t seem to be sure what the heck they want to do, you can’t think a whole lot of them.”
Edmonton grandmother Sharon Morin said the reintroduction of restrictions came as no surprise but they’re disappointing nonetheless.
“We didn’t take advantage of the ‘Open For Summer.’ We stay close to home. We don’t go out to restaurants. We still mask up. So it’s really frustrating when you’re put in this position because of others,” said Ms. Morin, pointing to unvaccinated Albertans and a lack of provincial leadership.
She said Mr. Kenney needs to take accountability for mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and resign.
“There has been no leadership here at all,” she said.
-With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton.
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