Anti-vaccination protests and all other demonstrations outside hospitals will be banned in a move to make Alberta health-care facilities safer for staff, patients and families, Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday.
But no new restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were announced, despite recent calls from medical professionals to enact "fire-breaker" measures to protect the struggling health-care system.
Kenney told a news conference the province is still monitoring the impact of public health measures that went into effect on Sept. 20. He said unvaccinated Albertans who are currently filling up hospitals beds would be unlikely to comply with any new measures.
"It is a paradox and there's no easy solution to it," he said.
Instead, the regulations of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act have been amended to ensure that health-care facilities are subject to the same legal protection as railways, highways and pipelines, carrying punishments for trespassing, interfering with operations and construction or causing damage.
WATCH | Kenney says unvaccinated unlikely to comply with new measures:
The measure is in response to protests two weeks ago across the country by anti-vaccination groups, Kenney said.
"Recently, Albertans watched anti-vaccine protesters stand in front of our hospitals, hurling mistruths and misinformation about our health-care system, our doctors and our nurses," he said.
"People were rightly shocked to see this totally inappropriate behaviour from a vocal minority."
Kenney and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu reiterated that the intention was not to interfere with any individual's constitutional right to lawful protest.
"Albertans must have the ability to access health care when they need it and health-care professionals must have the ability to do their work free from interference," Madu said.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said 1,246 new cases of COVID-19 were identified among 11,100 tests conducted in the previous 24 hours. The positivity rate was 11.5 per cent.
As of Tuesday, there are 1,100 patients in hospital, including 263 in intensive care.
Another 18 deaths were reported, bringing the total in the province to 2,663 since the start of the pandemic.
Hinshaw noted that over the past 120 days, people who aren't fully vaccinated represented 80 per cent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 91 per cent of those in the ICU.
"These numbers speak for themselves: vaccines are critically important," she said.
The health-care system is at a breaking point as Alberta Health Services scrambles to create more intensive care capacity in hospitals across the province.
Kenney said there are 370 ICU beds across the province, currently at 86 per cent capacity. He noted that if not for surge beds, the province would be at 184 per cent capacity.
"The only reason that we have any beds available is because AHS has added 197 surge spaces — more than double the number that we maintain as normal baseline of ICU beds in Alberta outside of this COVID time," he said.
The province is set to launch a new advertising campaign aimed at providing education about COVID-19 vaccines and debunking common myths, Kenney said.
That will include a direct informational pamphlet as well as radio, digital and billboard advertisements, he said.
Specific advertising is being aimed at demographics with a slower uptake, including rural regions and Albertans in their 20s and 30s.
Kenney said pharmacies and AHS will reach out to Albertans who have received a first dose but have not yet received a second.
Newfoundland and Labrador may help
Kenney told reporters he has been talking to Andrew Furey, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, about getting assistance from the province but indicated last week that Alberta had not reached the upper limit for its health-care system.
The offer from Newfoundland and Labrador is not off the table, Kenney said.
"We've gone back and forth and those discussions are carrying on today," he said.
"If Newfoundland feels that they can free up some medical personnel to supplement our own front-line workers, we would be delighted to receive that support."
He said Furey is interested in sending health-care workers to Fort McMurray, Alta., known colloquially as the Atlantic province's second-largest city.
"There may be news on that in the days to come," Kenney said.