Crisis? What crisis? Alberta premier massages the message with his fast and loose use of facts, figures

·4 min read
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Thursday announced a COVID-19 vaccination policy for provincial public servants. Columnist Graham Thomson wonders if he'll set a similar policy for UCP MLAs. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta - image credit)
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Thursday announced a COVID-19 vaccination policy for provincial public servants. Columnist Graham Thomson wonders if he'll set a similar policy for UCP MLAs. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta - image credit)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

After months of feeding carrots to vaccine-hesitant Albertans, Premier Jason Kenney is breaking out the stick.

Sort of.

He is telling Alberta's 25,000 civil servants who work directly for the government they must be vaccinated by Nov. 30 or produce a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of every scheduled workday.

Those that refuse won't be fired but will be placed on unpaid leave.

"Our aim is to encourage and educate all the members of the public service to get vaccinated," said public service commissioner Tim Grant.

In a previous incarnation a decade ago, Grant was a general leading Canadian troops in Afghanistan against the Taliban, an experience that might come in handy when dealing with another bellicose opponent: Alberta's anti-vaxxers. At least, any anti-vaxxers who happened to work for the government.

The government doesn't know how many of its 25,000 workers are unvaccinated but based on statistics for the general population, Grant figures it's about 4,000 people.

Alberta's major problem continues to be members of the general population who are driving the fourth wave of the pandemic by refusing to get vaccinated, contracting COVID-19, then subsequently clogging up hospital beds and forcing the cancellation of all elective surgeries.

Another major problem is how Kenney has been dealing with the crisis.

247 in ICU is good news?

Time and again, he's had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to take action. And even then, as he did Thursday, he makes it sound like everything is under control.

"As of this morning, we had 247 COVID patients in intensive care, down from 257 the previous day, and roughly flat from where we were a week ago," Kenney said on Thursday, making it sound like having 247 people stricken with COVID-19 in intensive care was good news.

And keep in mind that also on Thursday, Alberta Health Services reported another 20 people had died from COVID-19. One of them was a 24-year-old man from northern Alberta who had no known pre-existing conditions.

In an eye-opening comment last week, Dr. Verna Yiu, head of Alberta Health Services, said one of the reasons ICU wards have not faced even more pressure is because COVID-19 patients are dying and thus freeing up beds.

"It's tragic that we are only able to keep pace with these sort of numbers because, in part, some of our ICU patients have passed away," she said.

Even as Kenney talked on Thursday about the "severe" pressure on our hospitals, he continued to downplay the numbers.

"It is important to note that we are not the only province to have gone through such a challenging period during COVID," said Kenney, making it sound like Alberta's "challenging period" was in the past. "Our per capita COVID ICU admissions are pretty much exactly where Ontario was during their spring wave and are well below where Manitoba was when they had to transfer ICU patients out of province."

Irrelevant comparisons

But Kenney is comparing COVID apples and oranges. Ontario and Manitoba hit their "challenging times" back in the spring when vaccines were initially being rolled out. Alberta is experiencing its crisis at a time when vaccines have been widely available for months.

This irritating play with facts and figures might help explain why Kenney is the least popular premier in the country when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. Not only has he repeatedly tried to downplay the severity of COVID-19 by, among other things, likening it to the flu, he routinely toys with semantics to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes.

In July, for example, he dismissed the possibility of a fourth wave and rejected vaccine passports. We are now dealing with a catastrophic fourth wave and Kenney recently introduced a vaccine passport system but stubbornly refused to call it that, instead naming it a "restrictions exemption program."

And he refuses to heed the advice of both the Canadian Medical Association and the Alberta Medical Association for a "firebreak" or lockdown to help put a dent in COVID-19 numbers.

How about a vaccination policy for UCP politicians?

You have to wonder if that's because Kenney sincerely doesn't believe a firebreak will help or because he simply is a hostage to his own past anti-lockdown rhetoric.

Reporters asked him Thursday if he would demand all his MLAs and their staff get vaccinated, to keep in step with the new rule for civil servants. Kenney said he probably can't, given provisions in the Constitution, stop any elected official from entering the Legislature.

He could, though, demand that any UCP MLA who isn't vaccinated be removed from the UCP caucus.

(This is not an issue for the New Democrats who say all their MLAs and staff are fully vaccinated).

If Kenney wants to show he's willing to get tough with the unvaccinated who are paid by the public and who should set an example during a devastating pandemic, he might want to start with the elected people who actually run the government.

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