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Health Minister Tyler Shandro has pointed the finger at Alberta’s younger population for one of the causes of the COVID-19 upswing and hospitalizations. But that's not the full story.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Kenney government clearly didn’t foresee that COVID-19 would still be a public-health emergency in September, 2021. But here we are.

After almost a month of stasis by Alberta’s United Conservative Party government on the pandemic file, an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions – and an accompanying series of elective surgery postponements to maintain capacity in critical care – forced the province’s hand.

Premier Jason Kenney, who hasn’t spoken to reporters since early August, stood Friday to announce a somewhat disjointed suite of temporary measures to try to stem the fourth wave’s rising tide. They include a 10 p.m. curfew on serving liquor, a strong recommendation that unvaccinated people avoid big social gatherings, and a provincial mask mandate for indoor public spaces and workplaces as of 8 a.m. Saturday. Most controversially, there’s a plan to give still-unvaccinated people a $100 debit card to get their first or second shot.

Alberta to offer $100 incentive to encourage vaccination as COVID cases continue to surge

With 70 per cent of eligible Albertans having received both of their doses of vaccine already, the argument against such a plan is glaringly obvious. “Kenney is punishing millions of Albertans who have done the right thing while rewarding those who have not. He’s then giving $100 to the very people putting us at risk,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

This $100 incentive is different than the vaccine lottery, which was open to everyone who has been vaccinated, including keeners (and helped “a bit,” according to Mr. Kenney on Friday). The Premier made the point that the debit card could go to help a low-income person pay for transportation to get a vaccine. But he also said that he doesn’t care, at this point, whether the idea offends anyone’s sensibilities – it’s about keeping people from developing severe COVID-19 symptoms, and ending up in hospital.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this. But this is not a time for moral judgments. This is a time to get people vaccinated,” Mr. Kenney said.

“We have left no stone unturned, and yet we have the lowest vaccination rate in Canada,” he added. “And that is why we’re getting hit harder.”

Yes, Alberta’s immunization rate is lower than other provinces. As Mr. Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro noted many times, that’s in part because of the province’s younger population. There is also a small but significant group – larger in percentage terms than in most other provinces – who say they will never get a COVID-19 vaccine.

But of course, there are other stones unturned, including a vaccine-passport system for entering non-essential businesses, which other provinces are implementing. Some type of system is also proving to be inevitable – at least to some degree – for travel, going to concerts or sporting events and public-facing jobs.

(An Alberta vaccine passport system might develop in an ad hoc manner. As proof-of-vaccination is increasingly required by companies, employers and for travel, Alberta is developing proof-of-vaccination documents, including a machine-readable QR code, even if the government is not mandating a vaccine passport)

But for a Premier who said this June that Albertans should expect “maybe even the best summer ever” and that it was his intention that the province be open for good, this all must have been a huge, difficult pill to swallow. There was little reference to those past declarations on Friday – although Mr. Shandro said “a more contagious variant means that we need more people vaccinated to finally put this thing behind us – we honestly thought that we’d be there by now.”

You could feel the political wrangling that must have taken place in the hours leading up to the Friday announcement. The Premier in the past has disavowed both vaccine passports and forcing people to get vaccinated. He’s walking a fine balance of past political pledges to prioritize individual choice and freedom, the support of party members who want no part of new restrictions, and the stark reality of hospital ICUs filling up and more health care workers teetering on the verge of burnout.

So many things that this government saw as near certain haven’t come to pass. There hasn’t been the decoupling of the number of COVID-19 cases from hospital admissions that Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and her officials talked about in the middle of the summer. And the decision by Alberta Health Services to issue a firm vaccine requirement for its frontline staff this week is certainly not what the Premier and many in his caucus would have wished.

But yet his government didn’t block that decision, with Mr. Kenney saying it was the prerogative of AHS, a major employer, and that health staff are already required to prove they’ve been immunized for old-school diseases such as measles and mumps.

Mr. Kenney is trying to please a number of camps at once. There’s the three-quarters or so of Albertans who support vaccines, vaccine passports and some level of restrictions in order to quell the pandemic. There’s also those who deplore any restrictions, and think being vaccinated is a wholly personal and sometimes wrong decision.

He is also trying, as he himself acknowledged, to stay out of the federal election campaign. He won’t be campaigning in Ontario like he did during the 2019 federal campaign, on behalf of then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, because “given the situation, obviously I’m staying focused here.”

But he and other Conservatives have to be worried that Mr. Kenney’s diminished brand can influence the federal election, and will be used by the federal Liberals as a means to an end. When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau came to Calgary last month, he attacked Mr. Kenney. This week, Calgary Skyview Liberal candidate George Chahal tweeted his party’s commercial, which shows footage of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole praising Alberta’s handling of the pandemic, shown against unflattering newspaper headlines of Alberta’s COVID-19 response.

To be clear, all governments are grappling with a long list of terrible unknowns, and choosing from a selection of unpalatable options when it comes to an awful Delta-driven wave of the pandemic. Protesters in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have taken to major thoroughfares and hospital entrances in the past week to voice their discontent with vaccine passports.

The desired markers for acceptable level of a vaccinated population are changing quickly: For instance, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said in early August that a 90-per-cent full vaccination rate was an “aspirational goal.” Now, Kieran Moore said that number is needed to prevent rapid spread in the community.

But in Alberta, where ICUs are nearing capacity just as tens of thousands of unvaccinated school kids are back in class, it’s astounding that provincial health officials spoke with such certainty about dismantling COVID-19 monitoring systems and legal requirements to isolate this summer.

And for Mr. Kenney and his UCP government, it appears they were so intent on moving on from the worst stages of the pandemic, that they have responded too late to better stave off some of the fourth wave’s worst impacts on the province’s hospitals, and people.

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