Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday that certain health restrictions were being re-introduced across the province by the end of the week, amid rising COVID-19 infections and cases of variants of concern.
Alberta’s daily new case counts hovered just below 1,000 over the Easter long weekend, with variant cases surging – going from roughly 100 a day three weeks ago to 676 new cases identified on Tuesday, according to Kenney.
“So now, variants are pretty consistently over half of our new cases, over 40 per cent of our total active cases,” he said.
“In the race between variants and virus, the variants are winning.”
To curb the rising numbers, as of Friday at noon, indoor dining at restaurants will once again be off the table. Kenney said outdoor patios are still allowed to operate at restaurants and bars, and establishments can still offer take-out and delivery.
Social events will also be restricted, with indoor gatherings still being banned and outdoor gatherings capped at 10 people.
As of midnight on Wednesday, retail stores will also see their capacity reduced once more to 15 per cent from 25 per cent, and group fitness activities have been banned again. One-on-one fitness with trainers is still allowed.
Performance activities like dancing, singing, playing instruments and acting are also restricted for the time being. Libraries have also been closed “until further notice.”
“These measures are designed to buy us time to get enough Albertans vaccinated so we can finally get through this thing,” Kenney said.
All other existing public health restrictions are still in place. Essentially, the move returns Alberta to Step 1 of the province’s four-part reopening plan.
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney’s renewed health restrictions are the right call, but once again came too late despite clear evidence of the looming danger of the variants.
Shepherd said Kenney should have acted sooner on the variants and had financial supports ready to go for businesses that once again must close or scale back operations.
“We could see it coming,” said Shepherd.
“Unfortunately, we here in Alberta have a premier who acts last and acts least.”
When talking about the severity of the variants spreading, Kenney gave an example where one case of the P.1 variant brought into the province by someone returning from B.C., has led to 35 infections of the illness in Alberta.
One person linked to that outbreak has died and two people were admitted to the ICU for treatment, he added.
“These variants are a real enemy of public health and of lives,” he said.
Kenney said as it stands, Alberta is on track to be reporting 2,000 daily infections by the end of the month, based on transmission that’s happened to date.
“To be blunt, this wave is here. These trends would threaten the maximum capacity of our health-care system by next month, right when we’re reaching critical mass of vaccination,” he said.
The premier said he still believes that if Albertans adhere to the restrictions and do what they can to bring case counts down, the province can still have one of the best summers in Alberta’s history, despite doubt from both the public and some in his caucus.
Kenney said Health Minister Tyler Shandro will work with a committee of MLAs and health officials to bring Alberta “back to normalcy as soon as safely possible,” adding that he doesn’t want to see restrictions in place any longer than is absolutely necessary. That committee is expected to present its report by the end of April.
Vaccine rollout update
More than 734,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Alberta as of Tuesday, and Kenney said the province is averaging about 125,000 shots per week.
The province has received almost 400,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which means the vaccine rollout can expand further, Kenney said, in hopes of slowing the spread of variants.
As of Wednesday, all those who qualify for immunization as part of Phase 2B, anyone over the age of 16 with an underlying health condition, can book their appointment.
“My immediately expanding Phase 2B… half a million more Albertans will become eligible for vaccines overnight,” Kenney said.
Albertans aged 55 to 64 who don’t have underlying health conditions can also now book appointments to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The province is also opening seven “rapid flow-through” clinics this week, aimed at speeding up the vaccine process, in Red Deer, Fort McMurray, Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. The government will also allow walk-in immunizations at select pharmacies. More information on which pharmacies will take walk-ins is expected next week.
The province is still on track to immunize each adult Albertan who wants a COVID-19 shot, provided adequate supply comes from the federal government.
The premier projected that by summer, more than half of the province’s population will be considered immune to COVID-19, whether through the vaccine or because they contracted the virus. By the end of June, Kenney said nearly two-thirds of the population will be considered immune, and he hopes that almost three-quarters of Albertans will “have a good degree of immunity” by September.
Kenney said those milestones are part of the province’s path to recovery, more details of which will be released later this month.
“When about half of us have immunity, we’ll be raising capacity limits, we’ll be able to gather together in larger groups, some restrictions will remain, but not like now,” Kenney said.
“Once two-thirds of us have immunity, it will start to look like normal. There will be no formal restrictions, stampede and other festivals will be possible, masks and distancing will be part of our lives, but only encouraged.
“And then, once three-quarters of us are immune, we’ll be fully back to normal, without masking, without isolation.”
Cases see 27% jump in a week
Alberta reported 931 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, bringing the total active cases to 10,809 — which marks a 27 per cent jump in the last week, Kenney said.
Hospitalizations rose to 328, with 76 people being treated in ICUs.
Alberta Health reported three additional COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, all of which included comorbidities.
A man in his 90s and a woman in her 90s, whose cases were linked to the outbreak at the McKenzie Towne Care Centre in the Calgary zone, died.
A woman in her 90s, also in the Calgary zone but whose case wasn’t linked to an outbreak, also died.
With these additional COVID-19-related deaths, Alberta’s death toll from the disease surpassed 2,000 on Tuesday.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said because of a spike in cases in the Bow Valley, which includes three variant cases, Alberta Health Services is working with Lake Louise and Sunshine Village ski hills to do on-site and community testing of all staff and contractors.
“At this stage of the investigation, there is no identified single event or cause for this increase in cases,” she said.
“At this time we are not recommending precautionary testing for anyone who has visited or skied in the Banff-Canmore area recently. However, if you are symptomatic – as we always advise – stay home, isolate and arrange for testing.”