Just days after saying assistance offered to Alberta by the federal government and Newfoundland and Labrador was not immediately necessary, Premier Jason Kenney announced his province has now agreed to accept help as the health-care system is under “enormous pressure” because of the fourth wave of COVID-19.
“We appreciate reciprocal offers,” Kenney said at a Thursday afternoon news conference, noting Alberta has offered assistance to other provinces during the COVID-19 pandemic as well and still has citizens from other province’s in its hospitals’ ICUs.
Kenney said eight to 10 staff from the Canadian Armed Forces will be coming, likely to CFB Edmonton, along with up to 20 trained staff from the Canadian Red Cross, who will likely be deployed to the hard-hit Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
He also said his government is in the process of finalizing plans to bring in a medical team from Newfoundland, likely to be deployed to Fort McMurray’s hospital.
“These contributions may help us to staff four or five additional ICU beds,” the premier said, noting that every little bit helps.
“I know that Alberta health-care workers will be grateful for the helping hand and that all Albertans are thankful for any assistance at this challenging time.”
On Thursday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that his government was deploying personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Red Cross to Alberta in order to “reduce the burden on health-care workers.”
“We’ll continue having Alberta’s back, and do everything necessary to keep people safe and finish the fight against COVID-19,” he tweeted.
The announcement that help has now been officially accepted comes as Alberta Health Services says 309 patients are currently in Alberta’s ICUs, with “the vast majority” of them being positive for COVID-19.
Kenney said with bed capacity having been expanded to 372 available ICU beds, the province is using 83 per cent of its ICU capacity.
“(This) has come at a real cost,” the premier said, noting the large numbers of surgeries and procedures that have been postponed as a result, and the “huge stress” health-care workers are under as they deal with such high numbers of seriously ill patients.
Speaking at the same news conference, AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said the health authority has added 23 additional surge spaces in the last seven days alone and that without the extra spaces, Alberta’s use of its ICU capacity would be at 179 per cent.
“We continue to see more patients needing critical care,” she said.
Kenney said the reason he did not accept offers of help from Ottawa or Newfoundland until now was because his government is “trying to be conscious about the resources of other governments.”
“We’ve tried to be transparent with them about where we are at,” he said, adding that conversations have been and continue to be ongoing when it comes to bringing in help for the province.
Alberta to require provincial employees to be vaccinated or provide negative test results
Kenney announced Thursday that after a meeting of his government’s COVID-19 cabinet committee, a decision was made to require provincial employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The requirement will apply to about 25,500 workers.
Employees will have until Nov. 30 to submit proof of full vaccination. For those who do not get vaccinated, they’ll be required to produce a negative PCR test result or rapid test result within 72 hours of every scheduled shift and pay for that themselves.
Alternately, employees who don’t get vaccinated will be forced to “obtain an accommodation based on the Alberta Human Rights Act.”
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Tim Grant, Alberta’s public service commissioner, was asked by a reporter the government would fire employees who do not abide by the new vaccination rules.
“We’re not going to fire anyone,” he said.
“We would put them on unpaid leave.”
The government said it will also be recommending to school boards that they implement the same requirements for their staff.
When a reporter asked Kenney why the government was not itself requiring school staff to be vaccinated, the premier said his government does not have the legal authority to make that a requirement as they are not technically staff of the Alberta government.
Kenney said members of his government and members of the Opposition are currently in talks to look at how to implement a proof-of-vaccination policy for MLAs and their staff at the Alberta legislature.
“A final protocol has not been agreed to,” the premier said, adding that he believes “members should be asked to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result.”
Following the announcement, a couple of NDP MLAs, including Christina Gray and Thomas Dang, took to Twitter to say the Opposition has not been approached about a vaccine mandate for MLAs and staff. Global News has reached out to the premier’s office for further comment and will add it if it is received.
Kenney said implementing such a policy for lawmakers is more difficult because constitutionally speaking, he cannot “prohibit an elected member from entering the chamber.”
In a news release issued shortly after Kenney’s news conference, Opposition health critic David Shepherd said all 24 Opposition MLAs and all 30 Alberta NDP caucus staff are fully vaccinated.
Global News has reached out to the premier’s office to find out how many UCP MLAs are vaccinated.
“Let’s be clear, elected MLAs are leaders (and) government cabinet ministers are leaders,” Shepherd said. “We must lead by example. As such, I am calling for the UCP government to immediately bring forward a requirement to the member services committee that all MLAs and political staff be double-vaccinated against COVID-19.
“It’s time for us to send a unified message as elected officials to Albertans that the vaccines are safe and they are our best defence against the COVID-19 virus, which has already taken far too much from the people of this province.”
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Alberta Health announced Thursday that 20 more deaths in the province have been attributed to COVID-19, bringing the total number of fatalities since the pandemic began to 2,717.
The government department also said 1,706 new COVID-19 cases had been identified in the past 24 hours. As of Thursday afternoon, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta was at 20,255, down from 20,306 the day before.
The Edmonton zone (5,175) and Calgary zone (4,831) continue to have more active COVID-19 cases than any other region in the province.
In total, 1,083 Albertans were in hospital because of COVID-19 as of Thursday afternoon and 263 of those were in an ICU.
Kenney said the most recent R-value he has been given for Alberta is 1.02. He added that while there are signs active case numbers have plateaued overall, there is still considerable growth in rural areas that have fewer people vaccinated per capita than other parts of the province.
The premier and Health Minister Jason Copping also reiterated how dire the situation continues to be in Alberta’s hospitals.
“Every day, pressure on our health-care system grows,” Copping said at Thursday’s news conference. “Every (hospital) bed counts right now.
“We cannot keep expanding forever… our system is under extreme duress right now.”
“The choice to get vaccinated has never mattered more.”
As of Sept. 29, the government said 83.6 per cent of eligible Albertans 12 and older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and that 74.3 per cent of those 12 and older were fully vaccinated.
Not bringing in new public health measures right now
When asked if his government is considering bringing in additional public health measures, or a “circuit-breaker” lockdown like the one being called for by some doctors and other health experts, Kenney said his government currently has no plan to bring in new restrictions and that he wants to see how the latest public health measures, including the vaccine passport that he announced earlier this month, impact the COVID-19 situation.
“We are under very serious pressure… which is why we brought in wide-ranging public health measures,” he said. “We will take additional action if it’s necessary to protect the health-care system.
“What will happen in the future — nobody has a crystal ball, but in terms of active cases, they’ve been relatively stable for the last couple of weeks.”
Kenney added that steps to address the COVID-19 crisis in recent days are also intended to prepare the province for the colder months that are fast approaching.
“A cold snap that forces everybody indoors, upcoming Thanksgiving holidays and family gatherings — a lot of different things could suddenly increase transmission,” he said.
“So, we’re watching all of the trends very carefully.”
— With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press