Alberta Premier Jason Kenney Rejects Call for COVID-19 “Firebreak”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney rejected calls for a “hard lockdown” during an appearance on a radio program Sunday, the same day that his province’s former top doctor signed a letter calling for immediate “firebreak” measures to deal with surging cases of COVID-19.

Mr. Kenney told radio host Roy Green that a lockdown would make “no sense for the 80 percent of the population that is vaccinated,” who he said are much less likely to transmit the disease and are far less likely to be hospitalized.

He also said the roughly 20 percent who aren’t vaccinated and are behind the surge in cases are less likely to follow public health measures.

Dr. James Talbot, Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health, co-wrote a letter to the province’s new health minister, Jason Copping, strongly recommending additional measures in the province, as the pandemic’s fourth wave continues to strain hospital capacity.

More than 82 percent of eligible Albertans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 73 percent are fully immunized, but that represents only 62.4 percent of the province’s total population.

Dr. Talbot and Dr. Noel Gibney, a critical care specialist, made seven “urgent” recommendations in their letter, including the immediate transfer of ICU patients to other provinces to relieve pressure on hospitals and delay the need for triage protocols.

They also called for a set of closures and restrictions for bars, gyms, casinos, indoor dining and sports facilities for a minimum of four weeks, as well as capacity limits on indoor spaces such as places of worship and stores.

“My biggest concern is that … this is just going to get worse,” said Dr. Talbot.

The other proposed measures include:

  • That the government requires proof of vaccination to access all non-essential services.
  • That masks be mandated in schools, including when students are seated in classrooms.
  • That contact tracing is done for positive COVID-19 tests.
  • That the government and “related arms-length organizations (Alberta Blue Cross, WCB etc.)” mandate vaccines for all employees and contractors.
  • That immunization of employees is mandated in essential and non-essential businesses.

The province is developing new approaches to try to increase vaccine uptake, including supporting pop-up clinics like this one in all health zones.

However, the number of still-unvaccinated people is large enough to be causing what Alberta hospitals are seeing right now, Talbot said. Vaccines are not available to children under 12.

“[People] are being denied things like chemotherapy, elective surgery and could eventually run into a triage protocol where worse things happen because of how clogged up the system is,” he said.

“We still have tools available to stop the spread of the virus in the community, but the government is just choosing not to use them. They say they can’t. The truth is, they won’t.”

In a statement to CBC News, Steve Buick, Copping’s press secretary, said the health minister has “a clear mandate” from the premier to increase health system capacity, to educate vaccine-hesitant Albertans and increase vaccine coverage.

“We’re supporting [Alberta Health Services] in taking every possible step to continue to provide care to critically sick patients,” Mr. Buick wrote in the statement Sunday.

“We have reached out to other provinces and federal agencies as part of contingency planning. No patients have been transferred out of the province and no specific federal assistance has been requested. We’ll update Albertans if and as decisions are made on any requests.

“We have put proven measures in place to work to bend the curve and protect the health system. Similar measures successfully overcame previous waves, and we are working hard to overcome this current crisis.”

Dr. Talbot and Dr. Gibney’s letter outlines a grim near future in Alberta.

“Even if you were to implement the measures that we recommend today, it will take at least four weeks for them to have an effect on ICU beds. Time is of the essence. Albertans deserve better,” the letter says.

In the short term, it says, ICU transfers out of province are the only way to stop the triage protocol from being implemented, and while such transfers provide a chance for critically ill Albertans to receive the care they need, they also come with significant risks.

Dr. Talbot said the tepid government response to the pandemic has left him sad and angry.

“To deal with that psychological discrepancy between business as usual in the community and the hospital care system about to collapse, I don’t know how you deal with that psychologically.”

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