Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced very minor changes to indoor gathering rules Wednesday, ahead of the holidays. In addition, the premier announced an expansion to the province’s COVID-19 rapid test and booster programs.
While the province is not increasing the number of people who can gather indoors — a maximum of 10 adults — the limit to the number of households that can gather indoors has been removed.
Effective immediately, indoor gatherings remain capped at 10 adults, but those people can be from as many households as desired. Children and youth 17 and under do not count toward the 10-person limit, Kenney said.
In addition, the indoor gathering rule now applies to all Albertans regardless of their vaccination status. Up until now, unvaccinated Albertans were not allowed to gather indoors.
“We believe this is a reasonable, very modest change,” Kenney said, adding Alberta still has some of the most stringent gathering rules of any province in Canada.
“At the same time, we have to be mindful after 21 months of this, of the willingness of the public to actually comply with the rules. Rules on paper that are not observed by the public are meaningless, pointless and just undermine confidence in public health measures.
“We would not be taking this measure if we thought it represented any significant additional risk. We were very much hoping to be able to relax, more broadly, our public health measures going into this Christmas because Albertans have really stepped up to the plate and made enormous sacrifices to get the fourth wave under control.”
Dr. Daniel Gregson, an infectious disease physician at the University of Calgary, said a gathering of 10 fully vaccinated people at this time is reasonable. However, he stressed the importance of limiting overall contacts, particularly given the unknowns around the Omicron variant of concern.
“I think what’s not being stressed is again, there’s exemptions if you’re under 17. I’m not sure having two sets of grandparents over with two sets of children plus all their children under 17 is a reasonable thing to be doing, unless you’re doing something else to ensure the safety of the people in the room,” he said.
“I also have concerns with the 10-person limit. Saying, ‘Well, it’s 10 people one day and 10 day people the next.’ That’s also not really compliant with reducing the number of people you’re having contact with,” he said.
“The important thing for people to realize is they want to reduce their risk by reducing the number of contacts people are having altogether. … So going to a bar and restaurant on one day and then having 10 people over the next day or the day after that is probably not prudent.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the decision to eliminate a restriction on the number of households that can gather is practical. However, she was not in support of the decision to change the gathering rules for those who choose not to get vaccinated.
“I fundamentally regret the rationale behind the premier’s assertion that those rules can now be made available to those who are not vaccinated. This sends the completely wrong message,” Notley said, adding she believes the premier is rewarding people who refuse to follow the rules.
“Having a consistent set of rules amongst people who have followed the rules and got their vaccinations makes sense. But opening it up for those who continue to refuse to do that does not make sense,” she said.
“Inviting unvaccinated Albertans to gather with limited restrictions is a reckless step in the wrong direction.”
Gregson also disagreed with the premier’s decision to ease the gathering rules for the unvaccinated.
“My initial impression would be that the unvaccinated people in this province pose a major risk to our health-care system and I’m not in favour of them gathering without restrictions at any point in time. I think that’s a major concern,” Gregson said.
Kenney was questioned on the decision to allow unvaccinated Albertans to gather indoors. He said when the decision was made to ban indoor gatherings for unvaccinated people, Alberta was at the peak of the fourth wave, facing an imminent threat to health-care capacity.
“We now realize that we are a complete outlier in Canada. We are the only province in the federation that has had a prohibition on indoor, private socializing amongst people who are unvaccinated. We acknowledge that people who are unvaccinated are — I think, by definition — the least likely to observe public health measures.”
Kenney also stressed that Alberta’s overall vaccination rate has increased since the indoor gathering ban was implemented for unvaccinated people. Alberta’s vaccination rate has now hit 85 per cent of those 12 and older with two doses of vaccine.
Dealing with the Omicron variant
The premier said the province is taking a modest approach amid emerging, but still limited, evidence about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“We are closely monitoring developments around the Omicron variant and are taking immediate action to protect Albertans and slow the spread in our province,” Kenney said.
“We strongly encourage Albertans to do their part to address the threat of Omicron by getting a booster dose, using rapid tests when appropriate and following Alberta’s public health guidelines.”
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said early evidence suggests Omicron is more transmissible and it causes more breakthrough infections in those who have previously been infected with COVID-19 and in those who are fully vaccinated.
Early evidence also indicates Omicron may be less likely to cause severe outcomes than previous variants, Hinshaw said. But she added that with more people being infected much more quickly, the “overall impact on ICUs is still rising in other parts of the world where Omicron is spreading fast.
“Even if the risk of each individual case needing ICU care is lower, if the total number of cases is much larger, the total acute-care impact would be expected to be significant.”
Hinshaw said twice this year, the province has faced a new variant and “we must learn from our past.” She pointed to the decision to move to an endemic response earlier this summer, when the Delta variant was emerging.
“As we all know, that move was too early and the fourth wave had a devastating impact on our health-care system,” she said.
“We face a very real risk of experiencing a significant fifth wave with this new variant that could be worse than previous waves in terms of overall impact on our health system due to sheer volume of cases. We simply don’t know yet.”
Gregson said looking to what’s currently happening in Europe with the Omicron variant, a fifth wave is going to happen here.
“Questions are: How large is that wave going to be? And what sort of impact is that going to have on the health-care system?”
Calgary emergency room doctor Dr. Joe Vipond said the restrictions in place up until today have been enough to keep the Delta variant in check. However, now is not the time to be easing restrictions given the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, he said.
“In the wash it’s going to be much worse than the status quo. It’s not going to be enough. Omicron adds that factor that makes current mitigation measures not enough and I don’t think that overall we’re going to be better off after today’s announcement.”
Vipond made what he called a “bold prediction” for Alberta’s future.
“We’re going to have much more severe restrictions coming at us in the weeks to come and that if we had applied those restrictions now, we would have avoided a lot of death, disability, illness and social stress from severe restrictions. We have not yet learned from other jurisdictions or ourselves.”
Rapid test kits to be available to the public
Kenney also announced the expansion of the rapid testing program in Alberta.
Starting Friday, every Albertan will be able to pick up a free rapid antigen test kit. The kits include five rapid tests and detailed instructions on how to use them. The premier said these kits will add an additional level of protection against COVID-19 for Albertans mixing and mingling this holiday season.
Up to 500,000 rapid testing kits will be available at more than 700 sites across Alberta on a first-come, first-served basis, Kenney said.
The kits will be available at select Alberta Health Services sites and pharmacies.
“Albertans will be able to pick up a box for themselves and one box for those who cannot pick up themselves who might be in their households provided they have each individual’s health care number,” Kenney said.
More information on where to pick up tests can be found on the province’s website.
Kenney said the kits are intended to be used by those without COVID-19 symptoms. Those who test positive need to immediately isolate and get a PCR COVID-19 test done at an AHS assessment centre.
In addition, Kenney said rapid testing kits will be made available to any K-6 school on alert status, meaning two people with cases of COVID-19 attended school while infectious in the previous 14 days.
“These testing kits will provide an extra layer of defence,” Kenney said.
Notley said she was pleased to see the premier commit to rapid testing kits for Albertans, something her party had previously suggested.
“Still, I do also believe that these rapid tests should be made more readily available in all schools and in child-care centres and other common gathering points where vaccination is low or unavailable, like with young children,” she said following the premier’s announcement.
Canadian officials said Wednesday the federal government has procured 180 million rapid tests to be deployed across the country, but further details were not released.
Boosters now available to anyone 50+
Also Wednesday, Kenney announced that effective immediately, anyone 50 and older can book an appointment for their third dose of COVID-19 vaccine, as long as six months have passed since they received their second dose.
In addition, all health-care workers are also now eligible to book an appointment for their booster as long as six months have passed since they received their second dose.
“Boosters help to provide an extra but important layer of protection against the virus,” Kenney said.
This expansion means about two million Albertans have either already received or are eligible to book appointments for a third dose of vaccine.
Kenney said the province currently has about 475,000 Pfizer and Moderna doses in its inventory and about 64,000 appointments booked in the next 28 days. However, the premier stressed that appointments only make up about a third of the doses being handed out, as some are being administered to those who walk in for a shot.
Kenney said this means that the province does not currently have enough vaccine doses in its inventory to open up booster shots to every eligible Albertan.
The premier said he asked the prime minister during a call Tuesday evening for more vaccine doses, as well as rapid testing kits be sent to provinces.
COVID-19 data Wednesday
Alberta recorded 456 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. There were 4,082 active cases of COVID-19 in the province, up slightly from 4,016 active cases Tuesday.
Ten additional Omicron cases were identified in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in Alberta so far to 60.
There are 362 people in hospital with COVID-19, 71 of whom are being treated in intensive care.
Three additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the state of public health emergency that went in place in September lapsed. Kenney said the province will be watching the COVID-19 situation very closely and if officials have to take additional action, they will do so.
Kenney, Health Minister Jason Copping and Hinshaw were originally set to speak at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. That news conference was then pushed back to 5 p.m., before being postponed after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a nation-wide call with all premiers late in the afternoon to discuss the Omicron variant of COVID-19.