Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney, who faces unrest in his assembly and a health care system that is failing as COVID-19 spreads unchecked, introduced a vaccine pass system that will give businesses the choice between harsh restrictions or demanding customers showing evidence of vaccination or a negative test.
Kenney declared a public health emergency, saying Alberta could run out of intensive care units and staff to care for ICU patients within 10 days. Alberta also reintroduces physical distance restrictions in the public; a ban on indoor private social gatherings for people over the age of 12 who are not vaccinated; limiting indoor gatherings for those vaccinated; requires all staff and students in grades 4 to 12 to wear masks at school; order people to work from home; and other measures.
The award acknowledged that he had previously promised that his government would not support a vaccine passport system, but he said he had no choice.
“The government’s first obligation must be to avoid a large number of deaths that can be prevented. We have to deal with the reality we face. We can not wish it away, ”he said. “Morally, ethically and legally, the protection of life must be our greatest concern.”
He said the government made a mistake when it decided during the summer to treat COVID-19 as an “endemic” disease like the flu.
“It is now clear that we were wrong – and I’m sorry about that,” he said.
The prime minister made the decision after two days of cabinet meetings in the United Conservative Party.
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Alberta’s healthcare system is overrun with patients not vaccinated against the virus, forcing Alberta Health Services to cancel surgeries to expand ICU capacity beyond its 173-bed baseline. There were 877 COVID-19 patients at Alberta’s hospitals as of Tuesday, including 218 at the ICU.
A total of 270 people were in Alberta’s ICUs on Tuesday, according to AHS CEO Verna Yiu. This is an all-time high and possible only because the health authority added 132 temporary ICU beds to control the load.
Dr. Yiu said Wednesday that her bureau will soon ask other provinces if they have ICU space to care for Albertans. Additionally, AHS will ask other provinces if they have skilled front-line personnel who would be willing to work in Alberta.
The number of COVID-19 patients at the ICU has increased by 29 percent in the last seven days, she said. Because of this pressure, AHS staff trains in its triage protocol, which would determine who gets the care if Alberta runs out of ICU beds, equipment such as fans, medication, and available staff.
“We need to be prepared,” said Dr. Yiu. AHS has not yet activated the triage protocol. “It would be an absolute last resort.”
Approximately 93 percent of the COVID-19 patients in Alberta’s ICUs are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, and 73 percent of the infected patients in other parts of the hospitals are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.
Vaccine passports have increased immunization efforts in other provinces. In the two weeks after British Columbia announced plans for vaccine passes, the immunization rate for people between the ages of 18 and 29 rose by more than 4 percent, Alberta’s chief physician, Deena Hinshaw, said Monday. Further, vaccination rates rose nearly 3 percent for those between 30 and 39 and 1 percent for those over 50, she said.
In Alberta, 79 percent of people over the age of 12 received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, compared with 84 percent of eligible Canadians as of September 4th. Furthermore, 71 percent of eligible Albanians have two shots, compared to 77 percent nationwide. Of Alberta’s total population, 67.4 percent have one shot, and 60.5 percent have two, according to government data.
Alberta’s latest round of public health restrictions kicks off on 16 September. Vaccinated people are allowed to limit indoor private social gatherings to 10 people, except those under 12 years of age; and outdoor private social events should be limited to 200 participants, with rules for physical distancing in place. Worship services must limit attendance to one-third of the fire code capacity, masks are mandatory, and physical distancing applies.
On September 20, companies and event organizers must either implement public health measures or require patrons to provide proof that they have been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 within the previous 72 hours. A single dose of vaccine will be acceptable until October 25, provided it was administered two weeks before the person gained access to services. Children under the age of 12 are exempt and there is a dispensation from the medical area.
Restaurants that opt out of the vaccine pass system must close their indoor dining rooms and limit outdoor service to tables with six people, all of whom must be from the same household.
Indoor weddings and funerals will be limited to 50 people or 50 percent of the fire code capacity, whichever is less; and only 200 people can attend outdoor ceremonies. Indoor receptions are not allowed. Should the hosting facility require proof that patrons are vaccinated, Alberta will waive these requirements.
Retailers, libraries, concert venues, bars, casinos and similar businesses must limit capacity to one third of brand code capacity, introduce physical distancing, and patrons must not interfere with people from other households. These rules will be dropped for surgeries using the vaccine passport system.
Rachel Notley, the leader of Alberta’s Opposition New Democrats, said Alberta is in a crisis created by the Prime Minister.
She said Kenney pushed Alberta faster and harder than any other province and refused to act for weeks as it was obvious something needed to be done.
“He refused to take responsibility. He actually blamed low vaccination rates for ignoring the evidence and hiding, ”Ms Notley said.
“What we saw today from the Prime Minister was not an excuse. It was an embarrassing attempt to evade responsibility. ”
Kenney said in July that his government would not “facilitate” vaccine passports.
He said he would “deter companies” from implementing their own vaccine requirements, which he believed would violate Alberta’s privacy laws for health.
Major organizations ignored his advice, including Alberta Health Services, the province’s largest employer; Canadian Natural Resource Ltd., the oil sands power plant; Calgary Flames; Edmonton Oilers; and a bit of smaller businesses. Nine post-secondary institutions in Alberta said Monday that people who do not provide proof of being vaccinated will not be allowed on their campuses.
The schools said a negative test would only be accepted instead of those for medical or other protected reasons described in the Alberta Human Rights Act. Previously, three of the nine schools announced vaccination mandates with exceptions for those who tested negative, but not all required evidence.
Kenney, on Sept. 3, reintroduced masking requirements for indoor public spaces even though schools were exempt, and nixed liquor service after 10 p.m. slightly to increase vaccination rates. Critics argued that this policy rewarded delays, especially given the masking and alcohol restrictions that apply to everyone.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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