'Very concerned': As Omicron rapidly spreads, Alberta places new restrictions on indoor events

'Getting a booster shot is the single most important thing you can do,' said Premier Jason Kenney

Bill Kaufmann 5 minute read December 22, 2021

Alberta will see unprecedented COVID-19 case numbers driven by the Omicron variant, but the provincial government’s new public health measures will stop short of other provinces’ widespread shutdowns.

While 50 per capacity limits are being imposed on large venue events, with an 11 p.m. liquor-serving curfew for bars, the province is putting the onus on rapidly increasing booster vaccinations to combat the raging new variant that now dominates new cases of COVID-19 in the province.

“Getting a booster shot is the single most important thing you can do,” Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday.

But he said his biggest concern is that only 16 per cent of eligible Albertans have so far received that third shot of vaccine.

“Our greatest vulnerability is the low rate for the booster shots,” said the premier.

He noted the test positivity rate has gone from around three to four per cent in recent weeks to 11 per cent.

“We are going to move heaven and earth to get as many booster shots to Albertans as possible — we’ll be expanding the number of sites to deliver vaccines across the province,” said Kenney.

On Tuesday, the province expanded its booster immunization eligibility to all those 18 and over while promising millions more rapid test kits, including 10 million to be purchased by the province on the private market after suggestions the devices weren’t being delivered fast enough by Ottawa.

Due to the urgency of the situation, the boosters can be received five months after the second shot rather than the normal six months.

And lawmakers announced large venue gatherings of more than 1,000 people will be limited to half of normal capacity, while those of 1,000 and under will be capped at 500 people.

That comes as the vastly more infectious Omicron variant has now been detected at least 1,609 times in Alberta — up from just 200 late last week — and now comprises 52 per cent of new COVID-19 cases.

“I believe the situation is so severe, my family has cancelled our holiday plans,” said chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

“In the next few weeks, we will see transmissions rise to heights we’ve never seen before — we don’t know what that will do to our health-care system.”

As part of the City of Calgary’s extension of its mobile vaccination outreach program, a short-term COVID-19 vaccination station has launched at Southcentre Mall as of Dec. 14th. The new mobile station will support citizens who are still struggling with barriers to vaccination and facilitate third doses for those now eligible in Calgary on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

The arrival of the new variant has reversed a downward trend in case counts, though it’s yet to noticeably affect hospitalizations, which remained relatively steady in the past 24 hours at 329 — an increase of five — with a status quo 69 of those in ICU.

But Hinshaw noted there’s typically a two-week lag in those figures from rising case numbers and said some indications that Omicron might lead to less severe illnesses should be taken cautiously.

“Unless the severity of Omicron is severely reduced, the impact on our health-care system could be significant,” she said.

On Tuesday, B.C. tightened public health restrictions, including a ban on organized gatherings such as weddings and Christmas parties, while closing nightclubs, dance studios and fitness centres.

Quebec on Monday shut down bars, schools, gyms and cinemas in the face of rising COVID-19 hospitalization numbers. Other provinces have taken similarly stringent measures.

But Kenney said the new restrictions in Alberta — that take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday and include a ban on serving food and drinks to a seated audience or during intermissions — are suitable given the current circumstances.

“Each province is going to make its own decisions,” he said.

“We already have very robust public health measures in place since early September.”

He repeated his comments that pandemic-fatigued Albertans would be increasingly less likely to comply with tougher measures.

And he, Hinshaw and Health Minister Jason Copping implored Albertans to halve their contact with people outside their families.

“We’re giving folks some clear parameters . . . I trust Albertans in the vast majority of cases to make good decisions,” said Kenney.

Some Albertans have complained about a haphazard rollout of COVID-19 rapid test kits but Copping said Alberta will soon be awash in them, with 2.5 million delivered so far, another two million on the way and millions more requested from Ottawa for December.

Up to another 10 million will be procured next month by a provincial purchase because “we just can’t leave it to Ottawa, we need more tests and we need them sooner,” said Copping.

Relying on voluntary parameters has proven a dangerous exercise in pandering to the UCP base, said University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Ilan Schwartz.

“Unfortunately, the decisions of a few continue to have an outsized impact in prolonging and magnifying the impacts of COVID-19, and rather than confront these scofflaws the Premier panders to them,” he said.

“The continued reliance on the same failed approach, time and time again, shows an inability of this government to prioritize the health of Albertans over their ideology.”

Steele Grasza holds the COVID-19 test kits he has picked up at Northwest Pharmacy on Monday, December 20, 2021. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Schwartz said the coming “astronomical” numbers of COVID-19 cases could once again overwhelm the health-care system if even a small fraction prove severe, but he added he’s hoping for the best.

“I am optimistic based on the early data from elsewhere that there will be fewer hospitalizations, but we need to be prepared for the worst,” he said.

By not imposing stricter public health restrictions and having recently relaxed measures on family gatherings and reversing the need for people attending them to be fully vaccinated, the UCP government is in danger of repeating the disastrous mistakes of last summer and the fourth wave, said NDP health care critic David Shepherd.

“If other provinces are doing more to stop the spread, why does Jason Kenney think we should be doing less?” he said.

“If he’s wrong, how many Albertans will pay the price for those mistakes?

“Jason Kenney has shattered trust with Albertans.”

The developments come as the province recorded two more COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the total to 3,294.

And another 786 new cases of the disease were discovered over the past day, with a positivity rate of 10.8 per cent.

The number of active cases has risen to 6,045 from 4,082 a week ago.


Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn


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