Danielle Smith quashes nurses’ call for mask mandate despite high pediatric hospitalizations

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith (L) looks on as Health Minister Jason Copping speaks at a press conference on Dec. 21, 2022. Global News

There won’t be a provincial mask mandate this holiday season, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said Wednesday, instead leaving it to the choice of individuals.

“We’ve been very clear: anyone who feels comfortable wearing a mask should feel free to do so,” the premier said at an unrelated news conference.

“The advice from our chief medical officer of health has gone out through various means directly to parents online, through Twitter, to stay home when you’re sick and to make sure you’re washing your hands. And if you want to make the choice of a mask in the choice of vaccination, you should do that.”

On Tuesday, the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) sent a letter to the premier, the health minister and the chief medical officer of health (CMOH) calling on the government to require indoor mask wearing in order to reduce the spread of influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.

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The letter was penned on the same day the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton announced emergency provisions and staff redeployment as its ICU was full.

On Wednesday, an Alberta Health Services spokesperson said inpatient capacity at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary was over 100 per cent, and the pediatric ICU was under 100 per cent.

“Physicians are working extra shifts. Members of United Nurses of Alberta have been told they will be impacted by such staffing measures as mandatory overtime, schedule changes on short notice, and cancellation of staff vacations. There is no guarantee these actions will be enough to ease the problems in pediatric health care, let alone solve them,” UNA president Heather Smith wrote.

“Even a strong statement acknowledging that wearing masks in indoor public spaces and limiting the size and number of public gatherings attended this holiday season could have a beneficial impact.”

Click to play video: 'Stollery Children’s Hospital emergency provisions activated as ICU sits at 100% capacity'
Stollery Children’s Hospital emergency provisions activated as ICU sits at 100% capacity

She also called on CMOH Dr. Mark Joffe to publicly share “the gravity of the situation facing the province’s health-care facilities, especially pediatric care facilities right now.”

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Joffe has made few public appearances since being appointed on Nov. 14.

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The premier noted schools around the province are going on holiday break in days, “where the kids are not going to be in a congregate setting in a classroom.”

“I appreciate all the great work that United Nurses and their members are doing on the front line. They’ve been working so collaboratively and well with the administration making sure that we’re addressing the surge in patients that’s happening during this time of year,” the premier said.

NDP health critic and Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd said the Opposition has been calling on science-based decision making for public health policy through the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Part of the issues that we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was the continual political interference and politicization of many public health decisions under the UCP government, and we are seeing that continue under Premier Smith,” Shepherd said.

He repeated the call for an independent table of medical experts to transparently provide advice to government and to individual Albertans, and to allow the CMOH to be independent in his public health decisions.

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“Instead, what we see is a government that is putting its thumb on the scale, making political decisions, and choosing to ignore science in favour of its own ideology.”

‘Need to prepare’ despite dropping COVID, flu numbers: health minister

Health Minister Jason Copping said while influenza data shows a downward trend and RSV is “driving” pediatric hospitalizations, he expects the respiratory virus season to continue to stress the health-care system.

“We’re not done through our respiratory virus season yet. Even if we get through a peak over the next few weeks — and again, there’s no guarantee on that, even though we have flu and COVID coming down, we still have RSV — we need to prepare for if we get another flu peak in this season,” Copping said.

COVID hospitalizations continued trending downward in the latest weekly COVID-19 update.

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On Dec. 21, there were 910 COVID hospitalizations — 82 fewer than the week before. It’s also down from the previous peak of 1,140 on Nov. 22.

COVID ICU admissions notched up by one to 33 for the week ending Dec. 21. The most recent peak in ICU was 50 people on Nov. 23.

Children continue to be admitted to hospital, with 29 kids under 19 among the COVID hospitalizations in the past week, an increase of 12 from the prior week. And six infants under one year old were among the COVID ICU admissions this week.

And in the past week, 43 more Albertans have had their deaths attributed to COVID-19, bringing the pandemic death toll to 5,351.

Of the past week’s deaths, 24 were of Albertans over 80, seven people in their 70s, nine in their 60s, two in their 50s and one in their 30s.

PCR tests continue to be restricted to people with clinical risks or who live and/or work in high-risk settings.

The seven-day average positivity rate on PCR tests was 13.25 per cent, down about a third of a per cent, and the seven-day count of new COVID cases was 926 3 119 fewer than the week prior.

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