EDMONTON – Amid a furious fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has declared a public health emergency in his province and introduced a slate of new measures – including a vaccine passport system – in a major face to US Conservative leader.
Kenney’s announcement came at a news conference Wednesday night that followed a tough day for Alberta, where the health care system and its intensive care units have struggled to keep up with rising cases.
One person died at a rate of one per hour on Wednesday — equivalent to 24 deaths as a result of COVID-19 — along with 1,609 new reported cases.
The prime minister acknowledged that the situation in his province was proving to be more serious than the worst-case scenario for recent modeling, saying Alberta could run out of manned intensive care units within the next 10 days.
“Unless we slow down transmission, especially among unvaccinated Albertans, we simply will not be able to provide adequate care to anyone who becomes ill based on current trends,” Kenney said. “How bad this situation gets, and how long it lasts, is now up to each of us.”
Despite promising for several weeks that the province would not do so, Kenney told the news conference that a vaccine passport system will be introduced for some companies beginning on September 20th. These include restaurants, some events and non-essential businesses.
Eligible companies and events that agree to require vaccination evidence or evidence of a negative test are exempt from other public health restrictions. So as of next week, a restaurant can only host indoor dining if it requires proof of vaccination.
“The government has reluctantly decided to adopt the restriction exemption program, a proof of vaccination for participation in certain discretionary activities that carry a greater risk of viral transmission,” Kenney said. “No one will be forced to be vaccinated against their desires and a negative test option will be offered as an alternative.”
There are also new, general public health measures for the province, such as mandatory orders from home, mandatory masking at schools and restrictions for indoor social gatherings.
Even the fully vaccinated may not congregate with more than one other person outside their household. Those who have not been vaccinated must not socialize.
There are capacity constraints on gyms, places of worship and other public spaces.
Adopting a vaccine pass is a dramatic shift for Kenney, who had promised not to introduce a system that limited where unvaccinated people could go in public. He had previously raised concerns about privacy laws and instead suggested that companies or event organizers themselves could require passports.
The new tightening also comes after the Kenyan government lifted most COVID restrictions in early July and promised residents the “best summer ever.”
The prime minister seemed to apologize for these actions early in his press conference, but later during follow-up questions from a reporter, he was quick to clarify that he would not apologize.
Instead, Kenney said he was sorry to be “too excited” that the province would be open to good and to underestimate the virus. He defended the decision to lift restrictions when he did.
“At least in this society, you can not sustain serious intrusions into human lives permanently,” Kenney said.
“So no, I do not regret the decision to ease public health restrictions in the summer.”
Kenney said the data supported such a move at the time.
Alberta’s COVID-19 situation has become one of the worst in the country. For weeks, the province has seen an average of 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day with a steady increase in admissions — most of them unvaccinated people. Alberta’s vaccination rate has slowed over the summer and has only just over 71 percent of those eligible fully vaccinated.
Alberta is also reaching out to other provinces to see if they can accommodate ICU patients if necessary, and may need to implement triage protocols in hospitals if the situation gets worse.
Hospitals are struggling and thousands of non-emergency operations have been postponed. Alberta Health Services has added surge capacity to ICUs, but has still seen beds across the province fill up almost completely. Earlier in the week, intensive care units had a capacity of 90 percent.
“This is a crisis of the unvaccinated,” Kenney said. “Ninety percent of our intensive care patients are unvaccinated.”
The press conference followed a tense meeting a day earlier that had lasted much of Tuesday afternoon and into the evening.
An assembly source told Star that there were disagreements from some united Conservative MPs over the implementation of a mandatory vaccine passport system and several measures for public health. Some lawmakers are unhappy with Kenney’s leadership during the pandemic, said the source, who was not authorized to speak in public.
After taking a vacation in August, Kenney returned and reintroduced a provincial mask mandate, imposing a curfew at 10pm and announcing that $ 100 gift cards would be offered to anyone who gets a jab between Sept. 3 and October 14.
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