Some public health restrictions in Alberta could be lifted later this month, including the province’s vaccine passport program, if the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations declines sufficiently, Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday afternoon.
“Once we begin to see a sustained reduction in COVID pressure on the hospitals, I am looking forward to being able to make decisions about moving toward relaxation of public health measures at that time,” the premier said at a news conference.
“I believe that will happen this month.”
Kenney said while the number of non-ICU hospital patients with COVID-19 continues to climb, his government is seeing “a continuing decline in the number of total active cases” of COVID-19 and “encouraging trends” that the worst of the pandemic’s fifth wave is over in Alberta.
However, he also told Albertans the health-care system remains under serious pressure because of the coronavirus.
“We continue to see unusually high numbers of front-line workers who have had to stay home and are absent because of self-isolation due to COVID infections, as well as our front-line workers just being exhausted after the two past incredibly difficult years,” Kenney said.
“So, while these overall trends are encouraging and we clearly did reach the peak of… Omicron infections approximately two weeks ago, and it appears that we reached the peak of ICU pressures a couple of weeks ago, we are not out of the woods yet, and I implore Albertans to continue to be mindful of this, of the pressure on our health-care system.”
Speaking at the same news conference, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw also reminded Albertans that the number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals is at a record level.
“Hospitalizations for COVID-19 may be beginning to plateau, although it is important to note they are still currently higher than at any other time in the pandemic,” she said. “It’s also important to remember that the health-care system is still under significant strain. This means that any one of us who needs care for any reason should expect that the system might be a little slower right now.
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“Please don’t delay seeking help if you are sick, but also please be patient with the health-care workers who are doing everything they can to keep the system running under incredible pressure.”
The premier noted the high number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals continues to have an impact on surgical procedures that can currently be done in the province.
“We are continuing to see some postponement of surgeries and other medical procedures,” Kenney said. “We’re operating at about 85 per cent of our typical surgical capacity right now. I’d actually like to see that closer to 100 per cent.”
Kenney revealed his government is looking at scaling back health measures moments after updating the media on a standoff between police and people protesting COVID-19 health measures at the U.S.-Canada border in Coutts, Alta. Drivers involved in the protest have stalled traffic at the border crossing.
Kenney said he was briefed about RCMP officers being assaulted by protesters earlier Tuesday and condemned the violence and the blockade, which he called illegal.
When Global News asked the RCMP about the alleged assaults on Wednesday, they said they had not heard about any officers being assaulted.
When Global News reached out to the premier’s office on Wednesday for more information about the alleged assaults, a spokesperson said Kenney’s comments were made after he received situation reports from Alberta Justice that said “a group of motorists (protest sympathizers) attempting to travel south to Coutts… became increasingly hostile and had made threats against the (RCMP) members at the checkpoint, to the point where they surrounded members.”
The spokesperson said Kenney was told RCMP members manning a checkpoint were “surrounded by protesters in commercial and private vehicles” and that the demonstrators then “breached barricades and attempted to ram officers on scene.” They said nobody was injured but a collision “with other motorists on the highway occurred” and that “assaults between protesters and motorists ensued, requiring intervention.” The premier’s office did not provide further details on the assaults.
Kenney also condemned protesters who express extreme views or embrace symbols of hate, however, he said those peacefully and legally protesting against Washington and Ottawa’s quarantine requirements for non-vaccinated truckers crossing the Canada-U.S. border have his support.
“I went down to Washington in large part to make that case,” he said. “I’ve made it to the prime minister. I will continue to. For those who feel that way, I’m on your side. But part of the argument we’re making there is that the restriction on unvaccinated truck drivers doesn’t make sense and it’s going to further force up food prices and create challenges for supplies, including food. So that’s exactly what’s happening at the Coutts border crossing right now.
“I think the more persuasive way to make the case is in a law-abiding way. Let’s work together to make this point for common sense when it comes to that trucker vaccine mandate, and I’m certainly on side on that.”
Business owner says removing vaccine passport program could hurt businesses
Kris Harvey, an operating partner at a night club called The Chvrch of John and a co-founder of the Edmonton Independent Hospitality Community, said he believes Kenney’s goal of removing the vaccine passport program, officially known as the restrictions exemption program (REP), later this month will hurt businesses if he goes through with it.
“It’s Groundhog Day all over again,” he told Global News on Wednesday. “Two years later, he hasn’t learned his lesson.
“The REP program is great. It works. When the government decided to be open for summer, that didn’t work — it was the exact opposite. July 1 everything was open (but by) September we had curfews, restrictions and additional mandates. Then we rolled out the REP program which… has actually been a saving grace for our businesses.”
Harvey said he believes Kenney is simply trying to please the minority of Albertans who oppose COVID-19 vaccines. He said that if removing the vaccine passport program and other restrictions results in high ICU numbers that force the government to bring in new restrictions that hurt businesses, the government should properly compensate businesses for the impact of its policies.
“Every time that they say there’s gonna be ‘Gloves off, have fun,’ we know that it comes at the expense of our businesses,” Harvey said. “It’s just proof that Jason Kenney and the provincial government doesn’t care about small businesses, otherwise they would do the things that are needed to support us.”
Harvey said at his business, proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test will still be required even if the government scraps REP. He said he knows other business owners plan to continue the practice as well.
“We don’t want to be open at the expense of our employees, our friends, our family and lives and livelihoods,” he said. “If you care about your friends with cancer… I think that’s more important than someone not having to get vaccinated.
“(The REP) is something we think protects the vast majority, and actually lets people be able to get back to normal.”
Harvey said he would like REP to remain in effect and for government to instead remove restrictions on how late businesses that require vaccination can be open and what their customers can do, like dancing with others.
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Alberta Health reported Tuesday afternoon that 1,585 people in the province’s hospitals currently have COVID-19, up from 1,516 the day before. The number of people in hospital ICUs with COVID-19 also rose on Tuesday, up to 109 from 99 on Monday.
The number of Albertans whose deaths have been ruled to be linked to COVID-19 has rose by 13 on Monday, up to 3,579 in total.
Alberta Health announced Tuesday that 1,980 more COVID-19 cases have been identified in the province over the past 24 hours. Public health officials have noted that because of restrictions on who is eligible to receive a PCR test, the true number of new COVID-19 cases is likely at least 10 times higher than the province is reporting.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Hinshaw said the province’s positivity rate is at 40 per cent.
— With files from The Canadian Press