Premier Jason Kenney doubled down on his assertion that the Alberta government will not be following Quebec’s plan to impose a financial penalty on those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19 during a news conference on Thursday.
“It’s true that the choices made by people not to get vaccinated collectively impose greater costs and burdens, stress and strain on our front-line health-care system,” Kenney told reporters. “That’s unfortunate. But ultimately, we as a society — through universal public healthcare — agree to accept the consequences of people’s choices.
“We may not like it, but it’s a moral obligation we have not to pick and choose who gets care based on their financial ability.”
Kenney went on to say the implication of such a tax would result in those who are lower income and unvaccinated being denied care. A result he called “inhumane.”
The premier pointed to data from the United States that shows those in the low-income population and people of colour have a harder time accessing vaccines than others.
During a Facebook town-hall meeting Tuesday night, Kenney said the data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system than the vaccinated, but making them pay extra would not be fair.
“If we go down that road, we are completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care, which is why Alberta absolutely will not follow the decision of Quebec,” Kenney said Tuesday.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault had announced earlier in the day that he plans to make unvaccinated adult residents pay a “significant” financial penalty, given that they are occupying a disproportionate number of beds in hospitals.
Kenney conceded the unvaccinated are taking up far more hospital and intensive care beds, which has led to a domino effect of cancelled surgeries as health workers are reassigned to deal with the pandemic.
But he said levying a fee would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment or charging a high-risk skier for being injured and airlifted out of the back country.
“There is a larger and deeper principle here, which is we have a universal health-care system,” the premier said.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are, what your medical condition is, how wealthy you are, or what life choices you’ve made. You are guaranteed access to our health-care system, free of cost, for medically necessary services.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking in Ottawa, said he wants to see more details before passing judgment on Quebec’s plan, but added the province has given assurances that it won’t violate the Canada Health Act.
Alberta, as with other jurisdictions worldwide, is fighting a rapid, spiralling rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Kenney’s United Conservative government sharply slashed attendance at public events before Christmas and vaccine passports are still necessary to get into non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants.
Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 were sent back to class this week after Kenney promised extra masks and millions more rapid-tests for schools.
Last week, he said a million tests had arrived and three million more would be arriving each week after that for a total of 10 million from a private supplier. That’s on top of four million from the federal government.
However, Health Minister Jason Copping said Wednesday only 500,000 of the promised federal tests have arrived and that the balance of the 10 million from private suppliers is tied up in delays and global supply chain bottlenecks.
“We’re working to confirm deliveries by the day, including 4.8 million tests that we’ve directly procured that we hope to receive this week, which will go to schools and AHS (for health care workers),” Copping wrote on Twitter.
“We’ll update Albertans as more information becomes available.”
The Opposition NDP has urged the government to publish projections on how bad the Omicron surge is expected to be and to supply better masks and high-efficiency air filters for schools.
There are more than 61,000 reported active COVID-19 cases in the province, but Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, has said reduced testing capacity means the true number of infections is likely to be 10 times higher.
She said this week that the province is bracing for a “significant impact” on health care.
There are 748 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 82 in critical care.
Previous waves of the pandemic have already led to thousands of non-urgent surgeries being cancelled as staff are redeployed. Copping has said the province doesn’t expect to catch up until the middle of this year.
Neurologist Dr. Mary Lou Myles, joining the NDP at a news conference Wednesday, said staff reassignments have hurt multiple sclerosis patients.
Myles said early intervention and diagnosis is critical for MS patients, but a consultation with a neurologist that should take — and has previously taken — weeks or months is now taking a year.
Earlier diagnosis means earlier treatment and a better chance to avoid damage to the central nervous system and subsequent debilitating disabilities, she said.
“In the MS clinic itself, the redeployment of specialized nurses has had an impact,” said Myles.
“One of the nurses has been redeployed for almost a year. Other redeployments have been quite sudden and unpredictable, leading to kind of a little bit of chaos.”
– With files from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED