Associate minister walks back comment that Alberta is waiting for ICU capacity to hit its limit

·3 min read

Alberta's associate minister of mental health and addictions said he misrepresented government policy in a town hall when he said the province was waiting for hospital capacity to be pushed to the limit before announcing further restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"Our criteria is measured against our hospital capacity to handle ICUs and hospitalizations. So we're waiting to see where that threshold will be pushed to our limit and then gradually reduce more activities that way," Jason Luan said during the virtual town hall for his Calgary-Foothills constituency, in a video posted to social media.

However, Luan said in a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday that his comments were inaccurate.

"Yes, hospital capacity is a critical consideration in any COVID-19 response … but I was incorrect in suggesting anyone is waiting until we are pushed to the limit," he wrote.

Luan said the government is making evidence-based decisions, based on recommendations of public health officials, to avoid getting to that point. He said he regrets any confusion his statement caused and said he is not involved in making decisions around new restrictions or hospital capacity.

Luan's comments come as Alberta hits new record high COVID-19 case numbers, with some of the fewest restrictions but highest infection rates in the country.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, had said Friday that the impact of the province's most recently introduced restrictions — put into place last Friday — would start to be seen this weekend. Instead, cases have continued to rise dramatically.

On Sunday, the province saw 1,584 more people test positive, for a total of 12,195 active cases (both new records).

That's more new cases than were reported in Ontario on Sunday, which has more than three times Alberta's population. Toronto and Peel region will introduce further restrictions Monday, including limiting retail to curbside pickup or delivering, closing indoor and outdoor dining, and prohibiting indoor gatherings.

Alberta saw record hospitalizations as well with 319 people in hospital, 60 in intensive care (the province has 70 ICU beds for COVID-19 patients). A total of 471 Albertans have died.

Opposition to seek emergency debate

The spiking cases and lack of new restrictions prompted a trending Twitter hashtag — #WhereIsKenney — drawing attention to the fact Premier Jason Kenney, who is self isolating, hasn't made a public appearance by phone or video call in days.

CBC News reached out to both the premier's office and health minister's office for comment Sunday, and did not receive a response. Alberta Health said Dr. Hinshaw would next be available to answer questions from media on Monday afternoon.

Kenney had posted on social media Saturday asking Albertans to do their part and stay home if sick, wash their hands and wear a mask.

"As Dr. Hinshaw says, COVID-19 is deadly serious. Albertans, we can slow the spread and protect one another, but only if all of us together do the right things," he wrote.

The Opposition said in an emailed release Sunday that it would be seeking an emergency debate Monday to call for action to slow the coronavirus' spread.

"This is the greatest public health threat we have faced in our lives," said Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley in the release.

"We have seen premiers across the country address the public in recent days and provide modelling and other information that makes it clear just how big of a threat COVID-19 is. In Alberta, we've seen nothing of the sort."

Opposition Health Critic David Shepherd said that if Luan's remarks on Friday weren't true, Kenney needs to say what the real thresholds for action are.

Shepherd also rejected Luan's claim that he is not a spokesperson.

"This is an unforgivable attempt to duck responsibility by a cabinet minister," Shepherd said. "As the associate minister of health, Luan is absolutely a spokesperson and a decision maker and he gave Albertans false information about the government's response to COVID-19."