'Critical time for Alberta': Province reaches 60 per cent COVID-19 vaccine target

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EDMONTON — The Alberta government says more than 60 per cent of the province's eligible citizens have now received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine — a key benchmark in its phased reopening plan.

"The next two weeks will be a critical time for Alberta," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, said in a statement Friday.

"The more we can drive our numbers down in the next few weeks by all following public health measures, and the more Albertans who are protected by immunization, the more successful we will be in our opening."

Alberta Health says 60.3 per cent of those 12 years and older now have at least one dose.

Vaccine rates and hospitalization numbers are being used to determine the next steps to reduce public health restrictions, with the goal of eliminating almost all barriers to public gatherings and businesses by late June or early July.

There are 517 people in hospital with COVID, a number that has been trending down.

If there are fewer than 500 people in hospital two weeks from now, at the same time the latest vaccinations take full effect, the province will lift an array of health restrictions on June 10 — some of which have been in force for months.

Entertainment venues, including movie theatres, casinos and museums, would be allowed to open at one-third capacity. Restaurants would be allowed to have diners inside and worship services would also rise to 33 per cent maximum capacity.

There would be no restrictions on youth and adult sports. Public gatherings could have up to 150 people, and grandstands for sports and other events would be open at one-third capacity.

This would be the second phase of the three-stage reopening plan announced earlier this week by Premier Jason Kenney. It is the most ambitious in Canada. Comparable provinces such as B.C., Ontario and Quebec are making similar reopening decisions later in the summer.

Alberta's first phase, tied to having fewer than 800 people in hospital and a 50 per cent vaccination rate, was achieved more than a week ago.

As a result, restrictions announced in early May by Kenney to staunch a third wave of COVID are being rescinded, with most of these changes beginning Tuesday.

At that time, barber shops, hair salons and other personal wellness services will be allowed to reopen to appointments. Outdoor public gatherings will double to 10 people from five. Indoor social gatherings remain banned.

The final stage, with all major restrictions lifted along with no more ban on indoor social gatherings, is tied to 70 per cent getting vaccinated with hospitalization rates continuing to decrease.

Kenney has said the final stage could begin as early as June 28 based on projections of vaccine bookings.

Alberta announced 512 new COVID-19 cases for an active total of 8,760 Friday.

There were seven more deaths, bringing that total to 2,206 since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier Friday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the province will provide up to $45 million to help Grade 1 to 3 students whose learning may have been set back by the COVID-19 pandemic.

LaGrange said school boards can use the money as they see fit — whether it is for additional teachers or teacher aides, or for one-on-one or group instruction.

"It will certainly be up to the school authorities to determine how they’re going to spend those dollars (and) how they’re going to roll out those programs,” LaGrange told reporters.

The province estimates that 15 per cent of students in the early grades will need extra literacy and numeracy support due to learning disruptions related to COVID.

Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the money is "too little, too late" from a government that laid off school support staff at the start of the pandemic, failed to deliver consistent support since, and is not funding for enrolment growth.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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