As Alberta confirmed 991 additional cases of COVID-19 Sunday as well as six additional deaths, Premier Jason Kenney warned the government would implement stronger rules if Albertans fail to follow public health recommendations.
On The Roy Green Show, Kenney said the province has been focused on “education and personal responsibility” when it comes to managing the pandemic, but recent spiking numbers are concerning.
“Alberta really has a culture of what I call responsible freedom,” Kenney said. “We managed to get through the first seven or eight months of the COVID period with lower levels of infections, hospitalizations and COVID deaths than the other large provinces.
“I’m glad we’ve taken that approach. But now — we do see [a] very problematic increase in cases, that’s also showing up of course in hospitalizations and ICU admissions.”
There are now 262 Albertans in hospital, with 58 of them in intensive care. Compared to Saturday, that’s an increase of six more Albertans in hospital and four more who are in intensive care.
As of Sunday there are 9,618 active cases of COVID-19 in the province.
Sunday’s six deaths — all which were linked to outbreaks at continuing care centres or hospitals — bring Alberta’s fatality total to 407.
A man in his 90s in connection to the outbreak at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary zone died.
The other five deaths were all in Edmonton zone, including three linked to the outbreak at the Edmonton General Care Centre — a man and woman in their 80s and a woman in her 90s.
A woman in her 60s at the Misericordia Community Hospital and a woman in her 90s at South Terrace Continuing Care also passed away.
While the province did not update active case numbers by zone or recovery numbers over the weekend, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw will host an in-person update Monday that will include those numbers.
Kenney said the voluntary measures currently in place that ask Albertans to avoid social gatherings at home — as well as the new orders that have cancelled group fitness classes, and changed rules around liquor sales and closing times for bars and restaurants — should be adhered to.
“These are relatively modest measures, and I really hope the people respond positively,” he said.
“Because if not, we’ll have no option but to look at more restrictive measures down the line.”
The premier also said the request for Albertans to stop gathering at home could become an actual order as at-home transmissions rise.
He added the province is cancelling “thousands” of non-urgent surgeries, and moving “more and more” patients out of hospitals to make way for COVID-19 patients.
“This is not a political argument, this is not an abstraction, this is a reality,” he said. “If you have a friend or a relative who’s on the surgical wait list or needs non-urgent medical care, they are being negatively affected by the growth of the virus in Alberta. So we may have to take stronger measures if people do not respond.”
However, Kenney continued to stress personal responsibility in the province.
“We’re not going to enforce our way out of this, we’re not going to turn Alberta into a police state,” Kenney said.
Health-care workers ‘demoralized, overwhelmed’
Heather Smith, the president of United Nurses of Alberta said the alarming rise in cases this weekend is concerning for many health-care workers in the province.
“There’s huge, huge pressures and stress right across the health-care system,” Smith said Sunday.
“For nurses, they feel like every day they are rushing into a burning building. They have huge concerns about their own safety, about the safety of their patients and clients.”
She added that many local unions have told her that nurses are feeling “demoralized, exhausted, unappreciated, and overwhelmed.”
“The likelihood that numbers are likely to go higher — those feelings are only going to be magnified as well.”
Smith added that as more health workers are exposed to COVID-19 and need to isolate or take time off, the system will face even more pressure.
“All health-care workers are essential,” she said. “The exhaustion is real, and unfortunately you can’t keep up those levels indefinitely. We need assistance putting out this fire.”
Could Hinshaw enact a lockdown?
Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health Dr. James Talbot says right now, the provincial government holds all the cards when it comes to implementing more restrictions.
Talbot says unless the UCP re-instates a public health emergency, Hinshaw does not have the authority to impose a lockdown on her own.
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“When the emergency powers are in place, the medical officer of health can do so, but it would be rare for them to do so without the government agreeing,” he said.
Talbot is now an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, where he teaches students about the roles of chief medical officers.
He would not discuss Hinshaw’s exact position, but said if any CMOH ever finds themselves in a true disagreement with the presiding government – there are a few options available to them.
“If what you’re being asked to do is, in your opinion, immoral or unethical… that would be a situation in which I think most medical officers of health would believe they have no choice but to resign and then go public with the information.”
Talbot said the danger there, is that the CMOH could be replaced with someone who agrees with the government, even if it’s not in the public’s best interest.
“The second thing you can do is publicly disagree with the government’s policy.”
Alberta’s former CMOH said that is a bold move that would likely get the person fired from their position. It could also split public opinion on what is the correct action to take, leading to further divisions.
“The third option you have is to continue to do work behind the scenes to get more information, to get more allies, to get the public opinion to change, to get support for the option you believe protects people the most.”
Talbot said overall, he believes Alberta needs to take serious action to fight the pandemic now, before hospitals are completely overwhelmed.