Premier Jason Kenney announced that junior and senior high school students in COVID-19 “hot spots” will be heading back to at-home learning starting Monday.
He also said the government will implement a curfew where case rates are significantly high, specifically case rates above 1,000 per 100,000, and if a municipality or region requests it.
Starting Friday, Alberta will also close indoor fitness and indoor sports in the hot spot regions.
“These targeted restrictions will remain in place for at least two weeks for any community or area that reaches this trigger,” the government said in a news release. “After 14 days, the enhanced measures will be lifted once the municipality falls back below the threshold.”
Those regions are areas that have a COVID-19 case rate of at least 350 per 100,000 population and 250 currently active cases. They are:
- Fort McMurray
- Red Deer
- Grande Prairie
- Strathcona County
Kenney called this a “hard but necessary step.”
“I know we’re all tired of this pandemic.”
He said the targeted COVID-19 restrictions will be implemented to drive down case numbers and protect the health care system.
Currently, Alberta has more than 21,000 active cases — the most the province has ever had during the pandemic.
Of all active cases, 63 per cent involve variants of concern.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday Alberta confirmed 2,048 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours out of 20,500 tests, putting the provincial positivity rate at 10.1 per cent.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said more than 1,300 cases involving variants were identified.
He said hospitalizations have been “rising sharply.” There are 632 Albertans in hospital and 151 in ICU.
“That too is a record for Alberta during the pandemic,” Kenney said.
AHS has already been forced to start postponing surgeries in some zones.
Kenney said that will enable hospitals to expand in-patient beds, where necessary, and create more capacity for COVID-19 patients.
“We know that hospitalizations will continue to go up and this is a problem,” the premier said. “It impacts everyone who needs care for any reason,” he added, referencing car accidents, cancer diagnosis and other health needs.
He had hoped the move back to Step 1 announced about three weeks ago would have had more impact, Kenney said. But as case rates continue to rise, along with hospitalizations — and with the vaccines not arriving quickly enough — Alberta must act, he said.
“Based on supply, we still have many weeks to go until we reach broader community protection.”
As of Wednesday, 1,528,569 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered and 292,765 Albertans were fully immunized.
Kenney said the province is also working with the restaurant industry to ensure people who are dining on patios are only doing so with their household.
Curfew and fine enforcement
He also said the province is considering implementing a curfew “where needed” where case rates are significantly high — 1,000 or more cases per 100,000 population or where the municipal government requests it.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which would qualify given its case rate, has not requested a curfew at this time.
“We are in the process of reviewing the newly announced restrictions, evaluating options, and awaiting further details from the government,” a RMWB spokesperson told Global News.
“I’m going to say something I’ve never said before,” the premier said. “I encourage people, if they can possible do so, to stay home… to stay in their community.”
Kenney said the province would be adding “additional backstops” with stronger fine collection at registry services. He said that would mean someone who’s been fined for breaking a public health order and not paid the fine might be restricted from renewing their driver’s licence, for instance.
“This is for the people who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously by putting others at risk by following the public health measures in place.”
Three additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours. All three included comorbidities.
A woman in her 50s in the South zone died from COVID-19, along with two men in the Calgary zone: one in his 70s and one in his 80s.
Reaction to targeted restrictions
Dr. Chris Mody, head of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary, said Alberta needs restrictions to “snap the curve down,” and the ones implemented so far aren’t doing enough.
Mody said in November and December, when Alberta was fighting its second wave, the restrictions put in place brought case numbers down dramatically. However, he said those restrictions aren’t going to be enough to gain control of the variants of concern now dominating spread in the province.
“We’re going to have to actually really implement some restrictions and they’re going to be tough and there are going to be a lot of people that are going to have concerns about that,” Mody said.
“This is a race and it’s a race of vaccines versus variants. And the variants are coming strong. And vaccines, despite our best efforts, have been slow.”
Mody said two key things are needed for the province to start to move into recovery mode from the third wave: Albertans need to adhere to public health measures and enforcement against those who disregard them needs to be stronger.
“And then it’s an issue of how tight do we lock everything down and do we go back to where we were this time last year?”
Read more: COVID-19 variants: Not the same disease
Mody said Alberta doesn’t have the capacity to deal with another variant that may not be as responsive to the current vaccines, unlike the ones currently spreading in the population, and is also highly — or more — transmissible.
“We’re really right up against the edge.
“It’s not so much the edge of this particular variant which does respond to the vaccine — we have every opportunity to deal with this particular variant,” he said.
“But we have to build a little bit of slack into the system in terms of possible hospitalizations, beds, procedures that are being done, get (case) numbers down so that contact tracing can occur quickly and efficiently, so that if — and we all hope it won’t come — but if a variant comes and it’s not so responsive to the vaccine, we have the capacity to deal with that quickly.
“Right now, we don’t have that capacity and the new variant would go through the community very quickly. And if it was transmissible and also not responsive to the vaccine, we’d be in a very concerning situation. So it’s very important that we do this now.”
The Opposition criticized Kenney for his “mismanagement” of the crisis and his confusing messaging.
“He has repeatedly contradicted himself and ignored advice from medical professionals while routinely downplaying the severity of COVID-19,” NDP health critic David Shepherd said.
“Our hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed despite the premier promising he’d never let it get to that point.”
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said her heart goes out to Alberta parents and kids, after Kenney announced junior and senior high students in “hot spots” would be moving back to at-home learning for at least two weeks.
“Parents will suffer so much as they try to both do their jobs and take even more responsibility for their child’s education,” Hoffman said.
“Alberta’s kids are paying the price for his weak and ineffective leadership.”
In an emailed statement, the City of Calgary responded to the targeted restrictions.
“We are currently working through the updated provincial public health measures to understand their impacts on our own operations, services and facilities.
“Based on initial interpretation… starting on Friday, April 30, 2021 all indoor sport, fitness and recreation activities will be suspended until further notice. Outdoor recreational activities are currently allowed.”
Adding more ICU beds in Edmonton
Alberta Health Services said Monday it had added 19 ICU beds in the Edmonton zone. On Thursday, AHS said 11 more ICU beds were added, putting Edmonton zone’s ICU bed total at 102.
COVID-19 testing delays in Calgary
Alberta Health Services said a significant portion of the appointments for COVID-19 tests in the Calgary zone are turning out to be no shows.
“For the third day in a row, over 1,000 people who booked a COVID-19 test appointment in the Calgary zone did not show up for their test. That amounts to nearly 20 per cent of bookings,” an AHS spokesperson said Thursday.
There’s been high demand for test appointments in that zone, AHS added, and it can still take up to three to five days to get a COVID-19 test. AHS has expanded capacity and added a new temporary COVID-19 assessment and testing site in northeast Calgary.
AHS is urging anyone who no longer needs their booked COVID-19 test to cancel it.
Earlier on Thursday, Alberta announced the rest of those who qualify under Phase 2C and 2D can start booking COVID-19 vaccines on Friday.
Those phases include designated support people for seniors in care, anyone 50 or older and any First Nations Albertan 35 or older.
Phase 2C was also expanded to include firefighters.
Eligibility also expanded for people in targeted regions of the province, including the Cargill meat plant, Fort McMurray and Banff.
— With files from Heide Pearson, Global News