Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Thursday the actions of one pastor or one church do not reflect all Albertans or all faith communities.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw was addressing a situation with GraceLife Church outside Edmonton, whose pastor remains in custody after being arrested and refusing to comply with bail conditions for his release.
“For months, Alberta Health Services has attempted to proactively work with this church through education and conversations to make sure church leadership understood the health measures in place and the rationale behind them,” she said.
“These attempts to reach out and provide support and education were not successful in bringing the church into alignment with COVID-19 prevention requirements.
“Enforcement activities then escalated to fines and subsequent orders from AHS that the church follow COVID-19 protocols to protect their community.
“Ultimately, I understand RCMP decided to take the pastor into custody as a result of repeated violations of public health orders.”
While the pastor was scheduled to be released, Hinshaw said he did not confirm he would comply with conditions of his release. She stressed those decisions are determined by the courts; not Alberta Health nor AHS.
“This is a rare incident and I want to thank the vast majority of faith leaders and faith communities who have worked hard to protect each other and the broader communities by following the measures that are in place,” Hinshaw said.
“I know that the actions of one individual are not representative of all Albertans or all people of faith who, in particular, have demonstrated the compassion and perseverance required to get through this difficult time.”
She added that throughout the pandemic, Alberta has had some of the least restrictive health measures in the country for faith-based gatherings. The current rules restrict capacity to 15 per cent.
Hinshaw said she’ll be hosting a town hall with faith leaders to discuss this situation and thank them for their cooperation and support.
“It is essential that all we keep following the legal rules that are in place.”
The premier was asked Friday morning about the pastor’s arrest. During an interview, host Danielle Smith asked Jason Kenney if he was going to release the pastor.
“You know perfectly well that politicians don’t incarcerate people or release them. You know that we have an independent judicial system” and “I have to respect the judicial process.” He also said he couldn’t comment on an issue that is before the courts.
“We have about 10,000 clergy in Alberta, thousands of faith communities, and only one have had this situation,” Kenney said.
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent of those faith communities have continued to exercise their freedom of worship and religion within safe guidelines to prevent viral spread. It’s been difficult, it’s been inconvenient but they’ve managed to do it.
“No clergyman or clergyperson is obstructed from leading their congregation in worship in Alberta.”
He said that while other jurisdictions have shut down in-person services, Alberta made a point from the beginning to keep sites of worship open as long as they complied with public health measures — like distancing, reduced capacity and masking — to reduce the risk of viral transmission.
“Last year we had multiple, serious outbreaks from worship settings from which many people died,” the premier stressed.
Daily COVID-19 numbers
As of Thursday, 155,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Alberta and 58,000 people have been fully immunized.
Hinshaw said 415 new cases have been identified over the last 24 hours and 10,300 tests completed, putting Alberta’s positivity rate at 4.2 per cent.
There were active alerts or outbreaks in 10 per cent of Alberta schools, with a total of 854 cases identified since Jan. 11.
As of Thursday, 362 Albertans were in hospital due to COVID-19, 55 of whom were in intensive care.
Seven additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
Two of those — two men in their 90s with comorbidities — were linked to the outbreak at Youville Home in the Edmonton zone.
A man in his 70s with comorbidities, also from the Edmonton zone, passed away from COVID-19.
In the North zone, a woman in her 70s and a man in his 70s — both with comorbidities — also passed away.
In the Calgary zone, a man in his 90s with comorbidities died.
In the South zone, a man in his 60s also passed away. Comorbidities are unknown.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro was asked Thursday how Alberta will move forward with its vaccine rollout, specifically how the prioritization will be determined and whether, for instance, it will be age-based like other provinces have announced.
Shandro would not provide details but said a decision on Phase 2 of the rollout would be announced “fairly soon.”
He said the prioritization would be based on “vulnerability, on equity, on making sure we’re looking at the evidence.”
Shandro said recommendations will be going to the COVID cabinet committee and advice from the vaccination advisory board in Alberta, as well as the national committee, would be considered.
“We are going to be making that decision very soon,” he said when asked again. “It will be based on vulnerability as well as based on the evidence.”
Less than a week after announcing new deals for additional doses of approved coronavirus vaccines, the federal government unveiled its new expected vaccination timeline on Thursday — which includes millions of additional vaccinations between April and September.
With the new deals, Canada’s projected timeline has received a boost: 14.5 million people will be vaccinated by the end of June, according to the federal government, and 42 million people will be vaccinated by the end of September.
Canada’s population is just shy of 38 million.
Alberta’s health minister said the provincial rollout would not be hindered by the province’s capacity and ability to administer vaccine; the holdup, he stressed, was consistent vaccine supply.
“The acceleration is the acceleration from the previous slowdown. So it’s still not at the levels that we were originally told, quite frankly,” Shandro said.
“We still have the capacity for — if you remember the folks in Phase1B, about a quarter-of-a-million people in Phase 1B — and most of those, about 230,000 of them, were going to be our community seniors who are 75 or older. That was going to include family physicians and pharmacies able to provide that, that’s a big part of our ability to have that capacity.”
Shandro says he believes it’s safe to move forward with the province’s staged reopening plan as COVID-19 case numbers trend downward.
But he acknowledges new, more contagious COVID-19 variants are worrisome and there is now a team of 50 experienced investigators dedicated to tracking them.
The next phase of Alberta’s staged reopening plan could start as soon as March 1 and includes the potential easing of restrictions on banquet halls, indoor fitness and retail.
The threshold to get there is having fewer than 450 COVID-19 patients in hospital and there are currently 362.
Of Alberta’s 4,887 active cases, provincial health officials have been unable to pinpoint a source for 35 per cent — an improvement from late last year.
“We’re still at risk, especially of the new variants. We have to continue to be careful,” Shandro said Thursday.
“But Albertans have shown that they can do what it takes to bend the curve and that’s why I believe it’s safe to move forward with our careful, staged reopening.”
Contact tracing update
One year ago, Alberta’s contact-tracing team had 50 members. Now, it has more than 2,300 members, Shandro said.
“We’ve met our current recruitment targets but we continue to hire, continue to train… to increase capacity even further.”
After challenges and backlogs in late 2020, “the team has made incredible gains,” he said.
On average, workers are investigating 1,500 cases a day. In January alone, the team closed 21,800 investigations, the highest number ever for a single month.
They are now able to reach out to all positive cases within 24 hours of their test result.
“We are in a much better place now,” said Dr. Mark Joffe, vice-president and medical director for AHS.
He said the reasons for this are that the number of new COVID-19 cases has been trending down, the number of close contacts per each case is down (to about five or six each compared to 15), aggressive recruitment to bolster the workforce, the ability to adapt contact-tracing tools (to include phone, text, online close contacts portal, COVID-19 online assessment tool) and developing strong community partnerships (with operators, schools, businesses, event organizers).
“These tools have drastically reduced turnaround times to notify Albertans of their test result,” Joffe said.
The AHS online assessment and booking tool has been used more than 9-million times by Albertans so far.
There are translation services now available and when booking, Albertans can specify the language primarily spoken in their home.
— With files from The Canadian Press