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As Alberta's COVID-19 numbers set records, some call on the province to crack down

As Alberta continues to break COVID-19 records, some experts are asking why the premier and the province's top doctor are still resistant to bringing in new restrictions.

Province says tougher measures contingent on key hospitalization and ICU thresholds

Premier Jason Kenney, left, and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, are maintaining the status quo and resisting calls to bring in new restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

As Alberta continues to break COVID-19 records, some experts are asking why the premier and the province's top doctor are still resistant to bringing in new restrictions.

Alberta logged another 427 new cases Thursday and a total of 3,519 active cases of the illness, with 112 people being treated in hospitals (61 in the Edmonton zone), including 18 in ICU beds (half of them in the Edmonton zone).

Both Premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, called the numbers concerning, and yet Alberta is still not considering bringing in new restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"I think it's important to acknowledge that the virus is here to stay," Kenney said Thursday while self-isolating at home. 

The premier added that until there is widespread immunity — either through natural infection or through a vaccine — people are going to have to cope with it and carry on with life.

Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy expert at the University of Alberta, says the UCP's reluctance to resort to more mandatory restrictions might come down to politics.

"I'm a little bit surprised they haven't decided to be more aggressive," he said.

"We know that, for example, studies have shown there's more 'cynical' spreaders in Alberta than in some other jurisdictions like Ontario or B.C., and by that I mean individuals that are less likely to adopt these preventative strategies," he said.

"And given that reality, perhaps the government is sensing how this community might respond to more aggressive lockdown policies, and they're weighing that."

Kenney says polls suggest there is less support for "lockdown-style policies" in Alberta than in other places. 

"I think intuition of Albertans who are skeptical about lockdowns is pretty correct," he said.

"When it comes to any future restrictions, they will be limited, discrete, targeted and based on data, not on indiscriminate policies that shut down and impair entire segments of our economy."

That approach was exemplified on Thursday with the announcement that Alberta will conduct a pilot program allowing international travellers arriving in the province the option of taking an expedited COVID-19 test to avoid quarantining for 14 days — a move the premier says will help the province's struggling service and tourism industry.

'Political considerations'

Lori Williams, who teaches policy studies at Mount Royal University, also says ideology is underpinning Kenney's approach to the pandemic.

"Obviously, political considerations come into it. There's no question about that," she said.

"It's quite clear that he does want to appear like he's respecting the judgment of ordinary people, and that's consistent with that whole idea of common sense of the common people, part of the old Reform Party agenda that brought Jason Kenney into politics." 

But Williams said Kenney's strategy could backfire if the infection numbers continue to spiral upward, forcing the government to take more drastic measures.

"If we don't manage the pandemic properly, that is going to have a worse implication for the economy in the long run," she said. 

Williams says the province would be wiser to acknowledge now that the reliance on voluntary compliance is proving inadequate and that further mandatory measures are needed.

"I don't think it's gotten to the place where it's irreversible, but it is important that the government be seen to be responding to the evidence. And the reality is that we've had a very big spike in cases and that has to be looked at objectively and it has to be taken seriously," she said.

With files from Jennifer Lee

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