Faced with surging cases and the lowest vaccination rate in the country, Alberta will begin paying $100 to people who get a first or second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Premier Jason Kenney announced Friday.
The move is part of a suite of new measures announced by the province, including making masks mandatory for all indoor public spaces and workplaces starting Saturday.
Alberta is the first province in Canada to offer a financial incentive for vaccinations, though the tactic has been used in the United States, Kenney told a news conference in Edmonton.
"I wish we didn't have to do this, but this is not a time for moral judgments," he said about the incentive program, which is expected to cost about $20 million.
The number of eligible Albertans who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is about five percentage points below the Canadian average, he said.
"If the choice is between a sustained crisis in our hospitals or, God forbid, widespread restrictions, which I want to avoid at all costs, or finding some way to get the attention of those vaccine latecomers, we're going to choose the latter."
The $100 preloaded debit card incentive is open to Albertans aged 18 and older who are vaccinated between now and Oct. 14. It will require registration post-vaccination on a website going online on Sept. 13.
Among the public health measures announced Friday are:
Beginning Saturday, restaurants, cafés, bars, pubs and nightclubs will be required to end alcohol service at 10 p.m.
Unvaccinated Albertans are strongly recommended to limit indoor social gatherings to close contacts of only two cohort families, up to a maximum of 10 people.
Alberta Health is developing a QR code that will allow Albertans to quickly prove their vaccination status.
Employers are urged to pause return-to-work plans and instead continue with work-from-home measures. If employees are working on location, employees must mask for all indoor settings, except in workstations or where two-metre physical distancing or adequate physical barriers are in place.
School boards will continue to set their own masking rules for schools.
The news conference also offered sobering updates on the current strain on Alberta's health system and modelling that gives a glimpse of how bad things could get.
Alberta Health Services is postponing scheduled surgeries and procedures by between 30 and 60 per cent, depending on the zone. It is also opening up specific beds in Calgary and Edmonton for COVID-19 patients in a bid to free up space in hospitals.
"The situation is serious," AHS said in a news release.
Meanwhile, modelling done in mid-August suggests a worst-case scenario in the next few weeks of 700 people in regular hospital beds and as many as 290 more requiring intensive care, the government said in a news release.
Unvaccinated filling hospital beds
Kenney said the delta variant is pushing up hospitalization rates, almost entirely among unvaccinated people.
As of Thursday, 70 per cent of eligible Albertans ages 12 and up are now fully vaccinated, Kenney said.
"But the bad news is that we still have 30 per cent of the eligible population without full vaccine protection — that is to say, without two doses. And the delta variant is ripping its way through this group at an aggressive rate."
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the new measures will also help slow the spread of the virus and its impact on the health-care system.
"We need to bring these measures back to keep us safe," Shandro said. "We're confident that these things, along with our vaccines, will be enough to see us through with relatively small impacts on our lives, on our economy, compared to what we've seen previously throughout the pandemic."
The masking requirement "is a step that we can take with minimal disruption of businesses and people's normal activities," he said.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the new protocols are part of Alberta's evolving strategy to fight COVID-19.
Hospitalization and ICU numbers are trending upward with no guarantees of when the province will see a peak, Hinshaw said.
"We know that behaviour and contact patterns will likely change in September as fall activities begin," she said. "So it is likely that the peak hospitalization and ICU numbers will exceed these current predictions if we do not implement public health measures now."
Kenney said cases of the delta variant were in decline in July when the province lifted restrictions as part of its "open for summer" plan. More recently the variant has spread widely "and caused severe outcomes at much greater rates in unvaccinated adults," he said.
"This is true even among younger adults, as an example. Since July 1, unvaccinated people between the ages of 20 to 59 have had 50 to 60 times higher risk of hospitalization than those who were vaccinated."
Unvaccinated people have made up more than 80 per cent of all hospital admissions since July 1, he said.
Alberta is leading the country in daily new COVID-19 cases and active cases during the pandemic's fourth wave. The absence of government and health officials during the recent surge of cases has been widely criticized.
Alberta reported 1,339 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with 12,868 active cases across the province — an increase of 578 from the previous data update.
There were 487 people being treated in hospital, including 114 in intensive care beds.