Alberta adds COVID-19 measures, vaccine passport in effort to prevent health-care system’s collapse

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article said Wednesday marked the second time Alberta has declared a state of public health emergency amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It actually marked the third time such a declaration has been made. The line has been removed and we regret the error.

The Alberta government introduced a wide range of new public health measures on Wednesday night in an attempt to prevent COVID-19 cases from overwhelming the province’s health-care system but also noted that fully vaccinated citizens might be exempt from some of the rules.

“(Our) government has declared a state of public health emergency,” Premier Jason Kenney announced at a news conference. It’s the third time Alberta has done so since the pandemic began.

“We may run out of staff and intensive care beds within the next 10 days.

“Unless we slow (virus) transmission, particularly amongst unvaccinated Albertans, we simply will not be able to provide adequate care to everyone who gets sick.”

Click to play video: 'Kenney announces Alberta will ‘reluctantly’ introduce proof-of-COVID-19-vaccination program' 1:03 Kenney announces Alberta will ‘reluctantly’ introduce proof-of-COVID-19-vaccination program

Kenney announces Alberta will ‘reluctantly’ introduce proof-of-COVID-19-vaccination program

Kenney said his government had “reluctantly” backtracked on its commitment to “stay open for good” and not bring in a vaccine passport because the pandemic’s fourth wave is pushing the capacity of Alberta’s health-care system to the limit.

This is despite “the biggest per-capita health-care budget in Canada,” one his government hopes to reduce by cutting nurses’ wages.

“(We) are facing an emergency that requires immediate action,” the premier said.

Kenney had resisted bringing in a vaccine passport program for health privacy reasons.

Read more: Alberta doctors, chambers of commerce push for COVID-19 vaccine passport

When asked why measures announced Wednesday were not announced earlier, Kenney noted chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw only brought forth recommendations on restrictions this week.

Kenney said he still has confidence in Hinshaw as CMOH after she recently admitted it was a mistake this summer to shift the province’s pandemic response to an endemic one.

Click to play video: '‘We were wrong’: Jason Kenney apologizes for move to COVID-19 endemic ahead of 4th wave' 0:54 ‘We were wrong’: Jason Kenney apologizes for move to COVID-19 endemic ahead of 4th wave

‘We were wrong’: Jason Kenney apologizes for move to COVID-19 endemic ahead of 4th wave

“I apologize for having embraced the public shift from pandemic to endemic, which was clearly premature,” he said. “I don’t apologize for having lifted public health restrictions (on July 1).

“I’m proud of how this province has done.”

Read more: Alberta’s top doctor says ‘Open for Summer’ plan set stage for 4th wave of COVID-19

Dr. Verna Yiu, the president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, said the province’s total number of patients in intensive-care units hit 270 this week — the most in Alberta’s history.

She added that health officials are reaching out “to other provinces to see if they can offer any ICU spaces “where Albertans can get the care that they need,” and also asking them if they have “skilled, front-line staff who may be willing to come to Alberta to assist us.”

Yiu added that she hopes “it will not come to this.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Alberta reaching out to other provinces for help, begins work on critical care triage protocol' 2:45 COVID-19: Alberta reaching out to other provinces for help, begins work on critical care triage protocol

COVID-19: Alberta reaching out to other provinces for help, begins work on critical care triage protocol

She also noted health professionals are being trained on a triage system that has been developed that will apply provincewide in the event there are not enough beds, staff and equipment like ventilators to meet hospital demand.

Yiu noted the protocol has not been implemented to date and would be “an absolute last resort.”

Who do the new restrictions apply to?

The sweeping new public health measures announced Wednesday take effect Monday, Sept. 20, the government said, and an emphasis will be placed on education before enforcement.

In many cases, organizations can apply to be exempt from the rules if they implement a vaccine passport program. The government’s website says businesses do not have to apply for the exemptions as long as they follow the rules of the program.

Such a program would require people to show proof of vaccination or a “recent negative privately purchased COVID-19 test” to gain entry, although those negative tests cannot come from AHS or Alberta Precision Laboratories and the rules do not apply to people with medical exemptions preventing them from being vaccinated.

READ MORE: Alberta doctors, businesses react to new COVID-19 measures, vaccine passport 

However, when it comes to private indoor social gatherings, fully vaccinated Albertans cannot apply for exemptions. The government said fully vaccinated Albertans will need to cap their gatherings at 10 people and be “limited to a single household plus one other household.” Unvaccinated Albertans will no longer be allowed to attend any private social gathering. Outdoor events will continue to have no capacity limits but physical distancing will be required.

All schools in Alberta will now be required to have students in Grade 4 and above and all staff wear masks unless they “implement an alternate COVID safety plan.” The government did not explain what is required of those safety plans.

Elementary schools will need to implement class cohorting. For physical activities at school, students 18 and under will not be required to wear masks or maintain distance “when engaged in physical activity.” There are no restrictions on outdoor activities. Children’s day camps must also follow two-metre physical distancing and require masking indoors while children’s overnight camps will need to follow “cohort models.”

For children and adults’ extracurricular sports, performance and recreational activities, there will also be restrictions on recreation.

Click to play video: 'Alberta businesses react to latest COVID-19 measures' 1:50 Alberta businesses react to latest COVID-19 measures

Alberta businesses react to latest COVID-19 measures

For children, indoor activities are still allowed if an attempt at physical distancing and masking is made “where possible,” and if participants are screened for symptoms of COVID-19. However, masking and distancing are not required for team sports. Spectator attendance is limited to one-third of fire code capacity, and attendees need to be masked and practise physical distancing between different households unless someone lives alone, in which case they can be near up to two close contacts. There are no restrictions on outdoor activities.

For adults, no indoor activities or classes are allowed when it comes to extracurricular activities. One-on-one training is allowed but three-metre physical distancing is required.
Indoor competitions are not allowed unless a vaccine passport program is implemented and an exemption is granted. The government also reserved the right to provide exemptions in other cases but did not say what was needed for those exemptions. There are still no restrictions for outdoor activities.

Restaurants will only be allowed to have customers dine outdoors with a maximum of six people per table, and people at the table have to be from the same household unless the party is a person who lives alone and can dine with up to two close contacts.

Restaurants will also have to stop selling liquor at 10 p.m. and stop people from consuming alcohol past 11 p.m.

Retail, entertainment and recreation facilities like concert venues, libraries and casinos must be limited to one-third of fire code capacity, and people who go to those venues can only visit with members of their own household, unless a person lives alone, in which case, they can enter with up to two close contacts. Masking and physical distancing is also required.

Attendance at indoor weddings and funerals will be limited to 50 people “or 50 per cent fire code capacity, whichever is less,” and no indoor receptions are allowed. Outdoor ceremonies are limited to 200 people and the same liquor restrictions apply as at restaurants.

Places of worship must limit attendance to one-third of fire code capacity and require people to wear masks and physically distance themselves from people from other households unless they live alone, in which case, they can be near up to two close contacts.

Kenney said the government does not know how long the latest restrictions will remain in effect.

Printable proof-of-vaccination cards delayed

The government had said it would make access to printable proof-of-vaccination cards available on Thursday but announced that was being pushed back until Sunday, Sept. 19.

At that time, Albertans will be able to access copies of their vaccinations online through MyHealth Records.

The government also asked people not to log into MyHealth Records for the purpose of downloading vaccination records until Sunday.

As of early Thursday morning, the ability to log into accounts on the platform was paused, hindering users from seeing any of their health information.

‘Crisis of the unvaccinated’

Kenney said the pandemic in Alberta is currently a “crisis of the unvaccinated.”

“I do not say this to stigmatize people,” the premier said, before adding their decision to not be vaccinated “is not just about individual choice” as their inaction is the reason hospitals and ICUs are swamped with COVID-19 patients.

Kenney said about 90 per cent of COVID-19 patients in hospitals are unvaccinated. The government has identified a concerning trend of unvaccinated people not self-isolating when they are ill and only going to hospitals once their health deteriorates to the point that they immediately require intensive care.

“This is now the only responsible choice we have,” the premier said of his decision to bring in a vaccine passport system and new restrictions.

“Protection of life must be our paramount concern.”

Kenney reiterated that the reason the fourth wave of COVID-19 is hitting Alberta harder than anywhere else in Canada is because the province has among the country’s lowest vaccination rates.

“We must go further in encouraging vaccination,” he said.

Hinshaw pleads with Albertans to be kind, get vaccinated

Kenney spoke of how the pandemic has seen more divisions emerge among Alberta’s population. Hinshaw said as the province’s health-care system faces a challenge like never before, “kindness has also never mattered more.”

“We must urgently work together to again deal with COVID(-19),” she said, noting the latest wave of the pandemic is “already worse than the three waves that came before.”

“The challenge we face right now is uniquely severe.”

Read more: Alberta, Saskatchewan COVID-19 spike a lesson for rest of Canada: experts

Hinshaw reiterated that she regrets recommending the province move away from responding to COVID-19 like a pandemic but added she “made recommendations earlier this summer based on the best information I had.”

“I have continued to update my recommendations as the situation has changed.”

Click to play video: 'Kenney says Hinshaw has his ‘full confidence’ as COVID-19 response questioned' 0:41 Kenney says Hinshaw has his ‘full confidence’ as COVID-19 response questioned

Kenney says Hinshaw has his ‘full confidence’ as COVID-19 response questioned

Hinshaw said no single sector is to blame for the surge in COVID-19 cases, just that the spread is being driven by indoor activities.

“Restaurants, gym, faith communities and others have worked incredibly hard to protect the ones they serve,” she said. “I wish these steps weren’t necessary but they are.

“The choice to be fully immunized saves lives.”

Opposition says government was ‘unforgivably late to act’

The Opposition said the immense pressure on the health system, the high number of deaths, those being denied other health procedures and the blanket restrictions now could have been avoided had the government acted sooner.

“All of this was preventable,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said.

She said Kenney and his UCP government didn’t act for weeks when it was clear something had to be done.

“Jason Kenney and the UCP were unforgivably late to act,” Notley said.

“What we saw today from the premier was not an apology; it was an embarrassing attempt to duck responsibility yet again.”

Notley said now, even the Albertans who followed the rules and were vaccinated right away are being punished.

“All Albertans will pay the price for his cowardice,” she said. “Four friends cannot get together for a game of bridge now… even if they’re all vaccinated.”

“It isn’t fair and it’s not your fault.

“This summer, Jason Kenney told you the pandemic was over… Once again, we’re back to Step 1.”

Click to play video: '‘I don’t apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer’: Kenney defends COVID-19 decisions' 1:32 ‘I don’t apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer’: Kenney defends COVID-19 decisions

‘I don’t apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer’: Kenney defends COVID-19 decisions

Still, Notley said the public health measures announced Wednesday are necessary.

“We have to get these case numbers down. We have to protect our health-care system from imminent collapse.”

She urged Albertans to take this fourth wave seriously and follow the rules.

Notley noted that the government calls what most people refer to as a vaccine passport program a “restrictions exemption program,” even though she said Alberta’s program is similar to Ontario’s version.

“They didn’t have the courage to say ‘vaccine passport.’ They didn’t just use the phrase and explain it clearly to Albertans,” she said.

When asked about the opt-in nature of the program, Notley said she expects most businesses will adopt it.

“Restaurants have been told they can’t have indoor dining unless they have this… That’s effectively a mandate,” she said.

“They made it confusing… They didn’t have the courage of their convictions to say it clearly.”

Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta

COVID-19 cases have been surging in Alberta since mid-summer, and Tuesday saw the province set a new record for coronavirus-related ICU admissions, with 212 Albertans in intensive care — only to be broken Wednesday.

Hospitalization and ICU rates continued to climb. As of Wednesday, there were 877 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 218 were being treated in ICUs.

Alberta Health said Wednesday it had identified 1,609 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours out of 15,831 tests.

There were 18,421 active cases in the province.

Alberta’s death toll reached 2,495, up from 2,471 on Tuesday, meaning 24 COVID-related deaths were reported in the last 24 hours.

Alberta’s positivity rate sat at 10.5 per cent.

On Monday, 65 infectious diseases physicians from across Alberta called for immediate provincewide restrictions of access to indoor non-essential businesses and services for people who are not immunized against COVID-19.

“We, Alberta’s infectious diseases physicians, are writing to convey our gravest concerns about the safety of the province’s current COVID-19 approach, and to request immediate provincewide restricted access for unimmunized individuals to public indoor spaces for the purpose of accessing non-essential services,” the letter reads.

Earlier on Wednesday, municipal leaders had continued to push for vaccine passports.

Strathcona County Mayor Rod Frank suggested to councillors that the municipality explore implementing its own vaccine passport system as hospital cases soar.

In response to other councillors saying that should be left to the province, Frank responded: “We’ve left it to the province. They’ve done nothing.”

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said he was also hopeful the province would bring in a vaccine passport system.

“I continue to stand with a number of other mayors across the province who have called for vaccine passports,” he said. “(Businesses and facilities) would all benefit from a consistent, provincewide way of handling proof of vaccine and a clear set of rules about what you can and can’t do if you’re vaccinated.”

Iveson said provincewide guidelines on vaccine passports will help to provide clarity as well as an economic boost.

“I think that will help with our economic recovery, it will help with clarity and will create the clearest and most powerful incentive for people who haven’t yet bothered to get vaccinated to get on with it, which is the most helpful thing people can do.”

On Sept. 3, Kenney announced a provincewide mask mandate, a 10 p.m. liquor cutoff for licensed businesses and a $100 incentive for anyone who hadn’t received their first or second dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The province also “strongly recommended” anyone who wasn’t vaccinated limit their close contacts.

–With files from 630 CHED’s Kirby Bourne and Global News’ Caley Ramsay and Emily Mertz

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