EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government is working with the region that includes Fort McMurray, particularly on vaccines, after the area declared a state of emergency due to high COVID-19 numbers.
Kenney says the province will try to get more vaccines to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and help more residents there take advantage of inoculations.
Kenney said there is a lower uptake on existing vaccines in the area in and around the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray.
He said the uptake on first doses of vaccines has been about half of the 25 per cent average elsewhere in Alberta.
“The supply is there. Maybe the clinics and pharmacies have not been convenient enough for folks. Maybe there continues to be an issue of vaccine hesitancy in some of the surrounding First Nations,” Kenney said Monday.
“Those are issues that we have to work through.”
Don Scott, mayor of the municipality, said the issue is also one of eligibility, adding that their collective demographic is working against them.
"We're a young region," Scott said in an interview. "A lot of people who live in this region have not been qualifying for the vaccines yet."
Most doses remain reserved for people with underlying conditions, on the health-care front lines or in older age groups. One vaccine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca, is available for those as young as 40.
Kenney said while he understands Scott’s concerns, the province won’t go against health recommendations and alter vaccine age eligibility.
Wood Buffalo has just over 1,100 active cases, all but a handful directly in Fort McMurray.
Alberta Health Services said Fort McMurray's hospital, the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, has 22 patients with COVID-19 and has increased intensive care bed capacity to handle the nine in serious condition.
About 40 elective surgeries have been cancelled and minor surgical procedures scaled back.
Wood Buffalo council passed a motion Sunday approving the state of local emergency, giving council more powers to address the pandemic.
Wood Buffalo is one of a number of school divisions that have moved students to online learning as case numbers grow.
In the last two weeks, students in grades 7 through 12 in Calgary and Edmonton were also sent home. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, citing respect for local autonomy, approved the requests.
However, a request made last week to move all grade 7 to 12 students home in the Black Gold School Division, south of Edmonton, was rejected. Just one school, Thorsby Junior Senior High, is being allowed to send students home until May 10.
Black Gold superintendent Bill Romanchuk said high case counts and operational pressures were the reason.
Nicole Sparrow, spokeswoman for LaGrange, said Black Gold’s data didn't justify its request.
"Forty one per cent of their schools that offer Grades 7-12 did not have any COVID-19 cases nor did they have any students or staff quarantining," Sparrow said in an email.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the Black Gold situation suggests Kenney’s United Conservative government is giving local bodies autonomy in name but not in practice.
Notley said those in schools are best able to assess safety and operation. "This education minister needs to get her act together and needs to be accountable."
On Monday, there were 1,495 new COVID-19 cases reported provincewide. There were 616 people in hospital, 145 of whom were in intensive care. There were seven more deaths, bringing that total to 2,074.
About 1.4 million Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Kenney’s government has not brought in any new provincewide health restrictions for three weeks. In that time, there have been well over 1,000 new infections every day.
The last time Kenney tightened the rules, almost half his backbench caucus publicly criticized the restrictions, saying they needlessly infringed on the economy and on personal liberties.
Currently, Alberta does not allow indoor social gatherings. Outdoor gatherings are capped at 10. There are sharp restrictions on businesses and many entertainment and recreation venues remain closed.
Notley said Kenney, already facing low poll approval numbers, is reluctant to bring in any broad restrictions because he risks further fracturing a fragile governing caucus.
Kenney said the rising case rates stem not from inadequate rules but from too many ignoring existing strictures.
“More rules don’t mean more compliance,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2021.
— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press