Alberta to assess current COVID-19 health measures before considering new ones

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EDMONTON — Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro, accused of not doing enough to stop a COVID-19 surge swamping hospitals, says the government wants to see the effect of recent health restrictions before adding any new ones.

Shandro said he and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, are assessing the impact of health restrictions announced a week ago.

“We are taking this opportunity to see what that effect is, and for us to continue to look at those numbers and the opportunity to continue to work with (Hinshaw) and her office on what might further be necessary,” Shandro said Friday in Rocky Mountain House.

On Sept. 3, Shandro reintroduced a provincewide mask mandate in workplaces and public indoor spaces, along with 10 p.m. curfews on alcohol sales in bars and restaurants.

The goal was to stem a steep rise in COVID-19 that has overrun intensive care wards and forced hospitals to reassign staff to care for the critically ill.

Due to staff displacement, up to 60 per cent of non-urgent surgeries have been cancelled across the province, including all such procedures this week in the Calgary zone.

The government also promised last week to give $100 to anyone who gets the first or second COVID shot to boost lagging vaccination numbers.

Shandro said stalled vaccine numbers have been the catalyst for the soaring case counts and hospitalizations.

Alberta has seen, on average, a thousand new COVID cases each day for the last two weeks. There were 686 people in hospital Friday with the illness, including 169 in intensive care.

About 21 per cent of eligible Albertans, those age 12 and older, haven't got even one of the recommended two COVID vaccination shots, and the vast majority of COVID hospital cases are unvaccinated.

On Thursday, Alberta announced it will try to move as many patients as possible to home care and other care facilities to free up crucial hospital bed space. Shandro promised $36 million in extra funding to help make that happen.

But some Alberta emergency doctors said the measures don’t go far enough and that the system remains imperilled, raising concerns that eventually doctors could have to introduce triage protocols.

"We’re getting slammed," said Edmonton emergency physician Dr. Shazma Mithani in an interview.

"It was very disappointing to see there's no further action taken on the crisis of the fourth wave."

Mithani said they are not yet at the point that triage protocols are required but she said it is a concern. She said one of the most disturbing things now is an increasing number of pregnant women in hospital with COVID.

"We have not seen anything like this in the previous waves at all," she said. "There are a lot of really sick, pregnant women who are in the ICU right now, and it’s very scary and very upsetting."

Late Thursday, the physician advocacy group Protect our Province said the latest measures won't turn the tide and that vaccine passports are needed.

"Our health-care system truly is at the brink of collapse," said Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease clinician at the University of Alberta.

"The cause is negligence. The government's continued failure to act is either due to profound incompetence or malice. It’s a simple as that."

Emergency room physician Dr. Paul Parks added: "I don’t want them to wait until I or my colleagues are in a position where I have to make the choice: 'Does that 35-year-old get the last ventilator or does the 55-year-old?"

Shandro said the government continues to weigh the pros and cons of the passports, which are being adopted in many other provinces and would mandate vaccination for anyone wanting to go into bars, restaurants and access other non-essential services.

The passports have led to a rise in vaccination rates in other provinces, but have also seen protests from those who call the passports invasive and unfair intrusions.

Opposition NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said Premier Jason Kenney is refusing to bring in meaningful health restrictions like a vaccine passport because he fears a revolt from the anti-restriction wing of his United Conservative caucus.

"They're going to dump the responsibility for (the passport) on to business rather than having a provincewide policy (and) standing up to the extremists and the anti-science conspiracists in the UCP," said Phillips, speaking in Lethbridge.

"We're all better off when there are clear rules."

Ontario, B.C., Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are all bringing in vaccine passports.

There are signs that Kenney’s opposition to them is softening.

In recent weeks, his government’s position has gone from a hard no to Shandro twice this week refusing to say passports are off the table and instead confirming they are under consideration.

Also, Kenney’s government is making it easier for individual businesses to implement passport rules by creating a downloadable QR code to allow fast vaccine verification at the door.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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