Plans to lift Alberta COVID-19 restrictions to be announced this week
With hospitalizations at record levels, some fear ending restrictions may be premature
Premier Jason Kenney is expected to announce early this week when Albertans will see the end of the COVID-19 restrictions exemption program (REP) and other public health restrictions.
Promising it to be a "phased" plan, to be removed with other measures, Kenney's pledge to end the program has been met with mixed reaction.
"I think it is way too premature," said Heather Smith, head of the United Nurses of Alberta. "It's not evidence-based and it's irresponsible and reckless."
With the number of people in hospital with COVID-19 at record levels, Smith says lifting the program will lead to further strain on the health-care system and health-care workers.
"I'm very concerned that it is not only unsafe but it is asking for more deaths, more ill-health here in the province," she said.
The REP requires people in Alberta to show proof of double vaccination, a negative rapid test result taken within the past 72 hours or documentation of a medical exemption in order to enter businesses or public facilities where the program is in place.
Kenney announced the plan to lift restrictions on a Facebook Live event on Feb. 3, saying the plan would be forthcoming early this week.
Restaurateurs and other businesses in the province have voiced concerns over continued restrictions, saying their bottom lines are suffering.
Dr. Chris Mody, who heads the University of Calgary's Department of Microbiology Immunology and Infectious Diseases, says while the restrictions will need to be lifted at some point, the timing of Kenney's plan seems to be based on societal pressure rather than science.
He says the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths are still very high and it might be wise to wait a few more weeks.
"When we lift restrictions it's very likely we're going to see a further increase in hospitalizations because it's very likely that we're going to see somewhat of an increase in cases," he said.
"And I'm not sure that we're really at a place where people that really need to get non-COVID related healthcare are really getting that appropriately."
However, he said it's clear the time for reopening is approaching.
'Writing on the wall'
Mody said there are a number of factors to consider.
"I think that the writing is on the wall, that vaccinated people are eventually going to say, 'Why am I participating in all these restrictions when what I'm really accomplishing is protecting unvaccinated people and they made a choice,'" Mody said.
Those pressures, he said, need to be weighed against the current strain on hospitals and the delays in care some sick patients are facing as a result.
He noted restrictions also protect immunocompromised people who remain susceptible to COVID despite being vaccinated.
"Should we wait until health-care utilization drops a little bit? I think that would be a reasonable thing. But I think that eventually and fairly quickly we're going to see reductions in restrictions."
He noted Alberta may need to reimpose restrictions down the line as new variants emerge.
Smith points to the premier's failed promise in 2021 of the "best summer ever" — when his government lifted restrictions only to trigger a huge spike in infections, hospitalizations and deaths — as a cautionary tale against another premature reopening.
As a representative of nurses in Alberta, Smith says she sees increasing hospitalizations and high test positivity rates as a strong reason to remain cautious.
"We have 14 less people in hospital, but we had 15 new deaths. Is there perhaps a correlation, right?"
During the Facebook live last week, Kenney said municipalities will have the power to enforce their own public health restrictions, but that his government would look at amending the Municipal Government Act if municipal governments move to enact stronger measures.
More than a dozen UCP MLAs posted social media statements the same day as the premier's Facebook event saying they oppose the restrictions exemption program, which echoed messaging sent out by the UCP caucus chair.
Alberta NDP Leader says premier pandering to blockaders
Alberta's Opposition leader, Rachel Notley, says the accelerated timeline for removing the REP is not tied to medicine but due to protesters putting the squeeze on a premier facing low poll numbers, a restive party and a potentially fractious leadership review in just over two months.
She says Kenney is treating illegal blockaders with kid gloves to curry favour at a crucial upcoming party leadership vote.
Notley said it's indicative of a premier and a United Conservative government too often willing to sacrifice principles for short-term votes and support.
"The sight of an elected government being bent to the will of criminals should be of grave concern to everyone regardless of their political beliefs.
"The UCP has tossed out their values for votes."
Notley made the comments as protesters against vaccine mandates, in trucks and other vehicles, continued a week-long demonstration at the Coutts border crossing in southern Alberta, tying up traffic in both directions.
She added that Kenney and his government members have spoken out and acted swiftly when confronted with previous blockades, making their denunciations of this blockade mere whispers by comparison.
With files from the Canadian Press