All Alberta public servants will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide regular negative test results, Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday.
The policy, approved by the province's COVID-19 cabinet committee earlier in the day, will affect 25,500 provincial employees who must all submit proof of full vaccination by Nov. 30.
"We value our public servants and the important work that they do," Kenney said. "That's why we want to ensure that they're operating in safe workplaces and that we're doing everything we can to protect the millions of Albertans to whom they provide services."
Employees can be exempted if they obtain an accommodation based on the Alberta Human Rights Act or if they choose to produce a negative PCR test result, obtained at employee's expense and done within 72 hours of every scheduled workday.
Based on general statistics around uptake of vaccinations among Albertans, about 4,000 public service workers still need to be vaccinated, said public service commissioner Tim Grant.
Policy for politicians?
Employees who don't comply with the policy will be put on unpaid leave, he said.
"We're not going to fire anyone," Grant said. "Our aim is to encourage and educate all the members of the public service to get vaccinated. We believe that's the best, the safest, the most appropriate route to go."
Kenney said talks are underway about replicating the policy for Alberta's MLAs and staff to require everyone working within the legislature precinct to have to provide proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test.
A final protocol has not been agreed to, he said, partly because of a constitutional principle that elected members cannot be prohibited from entering the chamber.
"We are trying to sort out how you apply a policy like this while recognizing that longstanding constitutional principle."
Alberta Health Services announced in August it will require all employees and contracted health-care providers — including physicians — to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October.
Help coming to Alberta
Kenney also announced Thursday that Alberta is finalizing arrangements to receive medical staff from the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Red Cross and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The military will provide eight to 10 people with ICU training — which effectively staffs two more ICU beds — who will be working in the Edmonton area. The military will also prepare to provide medical transport.
The Red Cross will provide up to 20 trained staff, some with ICU experience. They will likely be sent to the Red Deer Regional Hospital which is "under severe stress" as a result of low vaccination uptake in central Alberta, Kenney said.
And a medical team of five or six ICU-trained staff should be coming from Canada's easternmost province, Kenney said. That team would likely be dispatched to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray, he added.
The offers to help are being gratefully accepted by Alberta, where "every bed counts right now" in taking pressure of the strained health-care system, Health Minister Jason Copping told the news conference.
"We know that our health-care system is under duress and our people need assistance," he said.
"We are doing this to be prudent. In the event of a worst-case scenario, we will have the most possible amount of resources here in Alberta to handle it. And if cases do come down, this will help take the strain off the system as we resume surgeries."
20 deaths reported
There were 1,706 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the last 24 hours, bringing Alberta's total number of active cases to 20,255.
There were also 20 new deaths reported Thursday, including a man in his 20s in the North zone.
There are 1,083 people in hospital being treated for the disease, including 263 in intensive care.
Here is how active cases break down across the province:
Edmonton zone — 5,175
Calgary zone — 4,831
North zone — 3,989
Central zone — 3,942
South zone — 2,295
Unknown — 23
Alberta Health Services president Dr. Verna Yiu told the news conference about the death of a frontline nurse.
"Today we are saddened by the death of one our nurses who worked in the ICU and emergency departments," Yiu said, who cited privacy issues and did not confirm the nurse died of COVID-19
"Our front-line physicians or nurses are under extreme stress and pressure. The pandemic is impacting individuals and our teams both physically and mentally."
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, was not at Thursday's news conference.
Strain on resources
As of midday Thursday, AHS said it had 373 ICU beds open across the province, which includes 200 additional spaces, a 115-per-cent increase over the baseline of 173.
Including the 263 patients with COVID-19, there were 309 patients in Alberta's ICU beds, AHS said.
Across Alberta, ICU capacity is currently at 83 per cent. Without the surge beds, capacity would be at 179 per cent, AHS said.
Here is how the 373 ICU beds and capacity break down across the province:
Calgary zone: 137 ICU beds, including 71 additional spaces. Operating at 79 per cent capacity.
Edmonton zone: 158 ICU beds, including 86 additional spaces. Operating at 86 per cent capacity.
Central zone: 27 ICU beds, including 15 additional spaces. Operating at 77 per cent capacity.
South zone: 36 ICU beds, including 19 additional spaces. Operating at 81 per cent capacity.
North zone: 15 ICU spaces split between Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray, including nine additional ICU spaces. Operating at 100 per cent capacity.