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Alberta's Kenney rejects new health rules as COVID-19 cripples hospitals


EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, facing consistently high COVID-19 cases that are pushing the health system to the brink of collapse, is rejecting new measures and a so-called “firebreak” lockdown of the economy.

Kenney said Tuesday his government needs more time to see if recently announced rules are working.

There’s no point to a full shutdown, he said, as it would unduly punish people who have been vaccinated while probably having no effect on the 17 per cent of eligible Albertans who have so far resisted getting even one shot.

“We are monitoring the trends and the numbers very closely every day. If we need to take additional measures, we will, but they have to be effective,” Kenney said in Calgary.

“If we were to bring in widespread restrictions, (they) would most likely be complied with by people who are vaccinated, but we would likely see large scale non-compliance among the unvaccinated population.

“That wouldn’t necessarily get us much further ahead.”

Kenney said his government will soon be rolling out a new advertising campaign to urge people to get vaccinated. He also said he will implement a new regulation to stop anti-vaccination protesters from gathering in front of hospitals and health centres.

In recent days, the Alberta Medical Association and infectious disease specialists have said the only solution to the COVID-19 crisis is to immediately shut down schools, businesses and attendance at sports events — but with full compensation.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is ready to help if it comes to that.

"If Alberta were to take further steps and go into a lockdown, federal supports for businesses, for individuals, would kick back in. And we'd make sure we were there to support people," Trudeau said.

Alberta's hospitals are dealing with severe patient overcrowding due to COVID-19. The province has more than 20,000 active cases, dwarfing totals in other provinces.

The surge overwhelmed the capacity of 173 intensive care beds weeks ago, which forced the province to create ad hoc spaces and reassign staff. That, in turn, has led to cancellation of thousands of non-urgent surgeries.

Doctors are being briefed on how to decide who gets life-saving care when resources run out. The head of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association has said some critical-care patients are not being put on ventilators because there aren't enough staff.

There were 318 people in intensive care Tuesday, most of them stricken with the virus. More than 90 per cent of COVID-19 patients in critical care are either partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.

In total, there were 1,100 people in hospital with the virus.

Almost two weeks ago, Kenney reinstated a provincewide, indoor mask mandate and some gathering restrictions to try to slow the spread. He also brought in a type of vaccine passport in an attempt to motivate people to get vaccinated.

But case numbers have continued to average well over 1,000 a day. There were 1,246 new cases reported Tuesday and 18 more deaths.

Kenney lifted almost all health restrictions July 1, then failed to act throughout the summer as cases and hospitalizations spiralled.

He has come under fierce criticism from members of his own United Conservative Party and caucus. Some UCP backbenchers are urging fewer restrictions while others demand Kenney impose tighter rules. 

Some want him to resign.

Last week, former cabinet minister Leela Aheer called for Kenney to step down, saying he failed to lead on COVID-19 when he had the chance in August.

On Tuesday, fellow UCP member Angela Pitt was asked on a Zoom call if she had faith in Kenney’s leadership and whether he should still be in the top job.

“The answer to that question is no, I don’t, and I don’t think that my constituents do either," she said.

The UCP confirmed Joel Mullan, the party’s vice-president of policy, had been fired. Mullan publicly called last week for Kenney to resign for failing to act consistently and effectively on COVID-19.

“The democratically elected board of directors voted to remove Mr. Mullan from his position for breaking the code of conduct and confidentiality agreement,” UCP spokesman Dave Prisco said in a statement.

Mullan, in an interview, disagreed.

Mullan said he was let go for publicly sharing one of his own emails calling for a leadership review. “Ultimately, I think the reason I’m out is I spoke out against the leader.”

David Shepherd, health critic for the Opposition NDP, said Kenney has consistently failed to put public health first for fear of angering an anti-restriction faction of his political base, while those in his caucus have not shown the courage to speak up.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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