On the day the Alberta government started rolling out vaccines for the novel coronavirus, Premier Jason Kenney joined the Danielle Smith Show on Global News Radio to discuss his governments’ response to the pandemic over the past year, including the latest round of public health restrictions that prohibit indoor and outdoor social gatherings, among other measures.
“The government of Alberta regards restrictions as being a last and limited resort, not a first and maximum resort like many other governments have,” Kenney said.
“But at the end of the day, we have to act to protect our health care system.”
Kenney asserted that “the single biggest impact” on Albertans’ health outside of COVID-19 has been the cancellation of surgeries and restricting access to hospitals.
“That’s not because of COVID restrictions, but that’s because of COVID filling up our hospitals.”
The premier also hailed the province’s preparedness for this pandemic, including having higher than average PPE and testing levels, as well as crediting staff who formerly served in the Armed Forces.
“We have a number of former senior military officers who help us run the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and who also populate senior ranks in our public service, who have brought the same kind of military rigor to emergency planning such as this,” Kenney said. “Alberta has a well-developed pandemic response plan, which was exercised just late last year. And we’ve gone through a number of emergencies in recent years.”
‘Significantly lower’ fatalities
When asked about criticism of the province’s response, Kenney said Alberta has “done very well” compared to North American and European jurisdictions, characterizing the analyses as “Alberta-bashing.”
“We have significantly lower COVID fatalities than the national average in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba,” he said. “We’re only a little bit ahead of British Columbia.”
The leader of the Official Opposition views matters differently.
“I think the premier needs to stop blaming other people for things and just focus on his work at home and be responsible and answer for it and be accountable, rather than constantly blaming and naming and shaming and all that kind of stuff,” Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said. “That’s not a helpful way to lead.”
Alberta’s death count of 17 people per capita includes data since March. It numbers more than B.C. at 13, but less than Quebec’s 90, Ontario’s 28 and the national average of 36.
But a Global News analysis of data shows Alberta’s death rates in the last two weeks matched the national average. In that time span, Alberta’s death rate per 100,000 is four, which is the same as Canada’s and B.C.’s.
Quebec’s is five per 100,000 and Ontario’s is two per capital. And Alberta’s death rate is up 60 per cent in the past two weeks, a rate of increase faster than B.C., Manitoba, Ontario or Quebec, and faster than the national average of 26 per cent.
Notley said using death statistics when characterizing the pandemic in the province was “a little cold.”
“The reality is our infection rate was way beyond any other province,” she said. “And because it’s an exponentially-growing virus, we were putting more and more people at risk, and jeopardizing the ability of our health-care system to provide critically important health care to people who were struggling with other illnesses.”
Rate of transmission
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced on Monday that the provincial rate of transmission from the past seven days is just below one. That means for every active case of COVID-19, one more person will catch the virus.
“The good news is it appears we’ve stabilized the situation,” Kenney told Smith Tuesday. “The bad news is that could turn around very quickly.”
The premier said that in the six-week span between Oct. 26 and Dec. 7, hospitalizations — including in intensive care — have increased six-fold.
The exponential growth in cases through the fall eventually prompted Kenney’s COVID-19 cabinet committee to put in the latest public health orders.
“Once you’re in that range of uncontrolled exponential growth there, you have very few options left. And so we felt it was important to step in with additional restrictions.”
Notley would like to see modelling data to get an idea of where the province’s coronavirus cases could be in four weeks, when the province is going to examine the results of the latest restrictions.
“If 40 per cent of Albertans carry through with Christmas as though the restrictions aren’t in place, we’re probably not going to be in a great place 28 days from now,” she said.
“If people follow the rules and we are in very restricted lockdown the way the rules would suggest we need to be unfortunately now — and I join all Albertans being very sad about what that means for our Christmas — but if we do that, then we’ll be in a very different place 28 days from now.”
Kenney announced that, following its arrival Monday night, the first coronavirus vaccines would be administered Tuesday at 4 p.m. — to a nurse in south Calgary and a nurse in Edmonton.
“We’re starting with ICU nurses and respiratory therapists because they’re dealing with COVID patients every day and we want them to be able to continue providing great service in our hospitals,” he said. “We’re expecting tens of thousands of units later in the week and early next week.”
Alberta plans to vaccinate about 10 per cent of the population in Q1 of 2021, focusing on frontline health-care workers and people living in long-term care and assisted living. The second cohort of vaccinations will go to other seniors and more health-care workers. Vaccinating the general public will begin in the summer, the premier said.
“Once we’ve inoculated the most vulnerable seniors over 70, especially those in congregate living facilities, it will be a game changer, certainly in terms of our mortality rates, because, as you know, the average age of a COVID death in Alberta is 82,” the premier said.
Albertans as young as in their 20s have died of the novel coronavirus. And 17 coronavirus cases in the province have been found to be in newborns under one year of age.
“(The vaccine) will also address some of the health-care workforce constraints we have, because at any given time these days, we have five per cent of our ICU nurses on sick leave or on COVID isolation because they’ve been in close contact or something like that.”
Kenney didn’t say whether the vaccine will be mandatory for health-care workers, saying he would refer that matter to AHS. Similarly, the premier acknowledged paramedics, often unionized workers, will have that discussion with their employer.
“I think the answer generally is that if you’re working in a frontline healthcare environment, I think you’re expected to take a vaccine that will protect both you and your patients,” the premier said. “It’s kind of like I was expecting health-care workers to wear personal protective equipment and take all those other protocols against infection.”
Comparing to Florida, New York
Smith asked Kenney for his reaction to Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ response to the coronavirus, one that the Alberta premier defended.
“He’s been a punching bag for many of the American opinion elites, but the results in Florida are significantly better than in the state of New York, where the media is rushing to give awards to (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo with some of the worst results in the world,” Kenney said.
But historical data from the COVID Tracking Project seems to point to very different courses for the coronavirus through those states.
During the course of the pandemic, Florida’s peak in new daily cases came on July 13. New York reached a peak in new cases on April 15. Alberta’s peak in new cases came on Dec. 13.
Florida’s deadliest day was Aug. 11, New York’s was May 7, Alberta’s was Dec. 13.