The leaders of Alberta’s largest public and private sector unions are calling for drastic lockdown measures immediately to fight the spiralling COVID-19 Omicron variant.
The leaders are calling for no in-person service at restaurants and bars, closing theatres and casinos, shuttering gyms, suspending recreational sports, and sending students home to learn online as a last resort.
They say it’s a difficult call but necessary to prevent the rapidly spreading variant from flooding hospitals and overwhelming an exhausted, depleted staff of frontline health workers.
But a spokesman for Premier Jason Kenney says the United Conservative government is following and acting on the scientific data for the Omicron wave and that a lockdown is not being considered.
Alberta Health reports 708 people are in hospital with COVID-19 — a rise of 73 from a day earlier — with 80 of them in intensive care.
There are now well over 58,000 active COVID-19 cases in Alberta but Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, has said the case numbers are low and the actual infections are likely 10 times higher.
The unions made the call for a lockdown in an open letter Tuesday.
The letter is signed by the United Nurses of Alberta, the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which is the largest public sector union in the province.
They say the latest wave of COVID-19 could have been avoided last month if Kenney’s government had implemented stricter health restrictions and initiatives, such as supplying workers with higher grade N95 masks and installing high-efficiency air filtration systems.
“Because of the government’s dangerous political pandering and its wilful policy negligence, we now have only two options to choose from: temporary circuit-breaker measures, on one hand, or a health-care system collapse and rising disease, disability and death, on the other,” write the union leaders.
“We, along with what we expect would be a clear majority of Albertans, choose temporary circuit-breaker measures as the lesser of two evils.”
The unions are also calling for a ban on concerts and sports events, and for religious services to move online.
They add that the government has to renew income supports to keep affected businesses solvent.
Justin Brattinga, a spokesman for Kenney, responded to the letter in a short statement: “As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will follow the science and the advice of our public health officials.
“A circuit-breaker is not on the table and not being considered.”
Kenney’s government implemented new restrictions on public gatherings in late December, including half capacity at major venues and events.
Most universities have already moved online this month for an indeterminate time.
Kindergarten and grade-school students returned to class this week after an extra week off so that staff could prepare for Omicron.
The province is delivering more masks and rapid tests to schools and has said students and staff will be the priority as millions more masks arrive this month.
The Opposition NDP says Kenney has failed yet again to deal seriously with another wave of COVID-19 and is calling on the province to release its projections of the Omicron wave so that parents, students, employers and employees can see what is coming.
Hinshaw said Monday that health officials are bracing for what she termed “significant impact” to the health system with a provincial positivity rate around 40 per cent.
Both Hinshaw and Kenney say that vaccines are the best protection against the Omicron wave.
Close to eight million COVID-19 vaccinations have been delivered in the province.
Almost 90 per cent of those eligible — age 12 and older — have had at least one dose and more than 85 per cent are fully vaccinated.