Absence of Alberta's premier, chief medical officer during COVID spike sparks public criticism

Cases of COVID-19 are surging in Alberta. The province once again leads the country in new infections. But while the fourth wave picks up momentum, the province’s premier and chief medical officer of health are missing in action.

Premier Jason Kenney and Dr. Deena Hinshaw haven't spoken publicly in weeks

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney last appeared publicly at a news conference on Aug. 9, 2021, at the Labatt brewing plant in Edmonton. (Janet French/CBC)

Alberta's leaders are coming under increasing fire from the public and politicians for not speaking publicly as COVID-19 case counts soar in late August.

On this day last year, the province recorded 157 new cases of COVID-19. Both Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw appeared in regularly scheduled updates several times that week, providing guidance to Albertans.

Today, 1,168 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded — a nationwide high. It's almost 400 more cases than Ontario reported today, a province with three times more people than Alberta.

It's the third day in a row that the count in Alberta has surpassed 1,000. Hospitalizations are also spiking. And the premier and chief medical officer have been silent for weeks.

The last time Kenney addressed Albertans was on Aug. 9 at a press conference to announce the expansion of an Edmonton brewery that promised to create 25 jobs.

Where has the premier been since?

His office said in a statement on Thursday that Kenney is on vacation for two weeks, but he is "still able to fully communicate with his cabinet and senior officials as required" and has "participated in numerous briefings on important subjects — including on COVID-19."

The statement did not say where Kenney is, only that he will be back at work next week — an absence that some politicians are criticizing.

"The alarm bells are ringing, yet the lights are off in the premier's office," said NDP health critic David Shepherd in a statement on Monday.

Some on social media have their own sarcastic theories on where the premier has disappeared to: he's on an all-expenses-paid tour of the Jameson's distillery in County Cork for doubling sales in Alberta; he flew to New Zealand to study their pandemic response first hand; he's on a space vacation with Elon Musk.

Hinshaw, meanwhile, hasn't spoken publicly since Aug. 13, when she delayed the province's plans to lift testing, tracing and isolation measures until at least Sept. 27.

In B.C. and Manitoba, broad mask mandates and restrictions are once again being implemented. But Alberta remains "open for summer" — with little guidance from the province's leaders.

Businesses and school boards have been left to their own devices, as have municipalities that are grappling with whether to reinstate mask mandates.

The lack of leadership from the province is worrying, said some experts.

"We need to have some leadership around the big policy options … vaccine cards, mandates and masks," said Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta. "Also, we need to figure out as a community how we can get more people vaccinated."

Vaccination rates in Alberta have slowed to a crawl.

Without action, Alberta could be headed down a dangerous path. Modelling from the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group puts the doubling rate of cases and hospitalization numbers in Alberta at 8½ days.

That growth rate is concerning with the dominance of the delta variant among positive cases, said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

"Delta is a game changer, more infectious and of course when you put down your guard and you allow this virus to circulate, it is waiting for all of us, unfortunately," said Mokdad.

With files from Erin Collins and Elissa Carpenter.