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UCP caucus chair denies advocating for COVID case spike in Alberta's unvaccinated

The chairman of Alberta's United Conservative caucus is denying he said he wanted more unvaccinated people to catch COVID-19 so the province could attain herd immunity.

Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf says he hopes cases will level off and drop asap

Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf said Friday that he hopes to see a rapid rise in COVID cases among unvaccinated people in order to get to a sharp decline. On Monday, he clarified that he does not want to see COVID-19 cases spike. (Nathan Neudorf/Facebook)

The chairman of Alberta's United Conservative caucus is denying he said he wanted more unvaccinated people to catch COVID-19 so the province could attain herd immunity.

Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf says he wants cases to go down and that getting more people vaccinated is the best way to achieve that.

On Friday, Neudorf sparked controversy when he told Bridge City News, a program based in Lethbridge, that he was "very hopeful" Alberta would see a rise in COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated.

He told the program that having infections sweep through unprotected people could result in herd immunity — leaving the virus with no one else to infect and thereby causing cases to fall.

Alberta recorded 1,168 new cases of COVID-19  and had 9,655 active cases as of Friday — far exceeding any other province, including Ontario, which has more than three times the population.

The province has well over one million unvaccinated residents, including 660,000 children under 12, who are not eligible to get shots.

"Once these case numbers have gone through the unvaccinated, where do they go?" the Lethbridge-East MLA told the program.

Neudorf said the fourth wave in other parts of the world, like the U.K., was characterized by a rise of case numbers followed by an "equally" rapid decline after the virus "finished going through the unvaccinated population."

"I am very hopeful that we will see the same kind of trend," Neudorf said.

On Monday, Neudorf said his comments had been misinterpreted and clarified that he does not want to see COVID-19 cases spike.

"We have seen COVID cases rise in Alberta over the past several weeks. My hope is that they would level off and drop as quickly as possible," he said.

NDP calls on Neudorf to resign as caucus chair

The Opposition NDP and other critics pounced on his comments.

David Shepherd, NDP health critic, said in a statement on Friday that "the [UCP] plan is clear: let 'er rip. This government will let the delta variant sweep through our unvaccinated population, causing more serious illness and death.

On Monday, the Opposition NDP called on him to apologize and resign as caucus chairman. 

Lethbridge West NDP MLA Shannon Phillips called Neudorf's remarks "odious."

Alberta's premier, health minister and chief medical health officer have come under increasing fire from the public and politicians for not speaking publicly as COVID-19 case counts soar in late August. 

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

His office said last Thursday that he had been on vacation for two weeks, but he was "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 said Kenney would be back at work this week.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, 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.

On July 29, the Alberta government loosened its rules so that quarantine for close contacts of COVID-infected people was no longer mandatory, contact tracers no longer notify close contacts, and asymptomatic testing is no longer recommended.

U.K. still faces high case counts

The U.K.'s fourth wave, which Neudorf spoke about as an example, peaked in July and case counts did rapidly fall in early August.

However, they have since risen quickly. Last week the country recorded its highest weekly case count since July. Deaths are also increasing, according to data from the World Health Organization.

Cynthia Carr, epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc., said that trends in the U.K. can't necessarily be compared to Alberta because there are many factors that can affect case counts.

In the U.K., after infections resulting from the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship resolved and school had not started, case rates went down because those high-risk situations weren't present.

"But that doesn't mean that the population was protected. It just means there was a point-in-time event that went up and down," said Carr.

"That doesn't mean you can say, 'OK, now we're safe because that happened.'"

Risk of overwhelming health system

On Friday, Neudorf encouraged Albertans to look at the science of severe outcomes and get vaccinated.

Of the 74 COVID patients in ICU in Alberta on Friday, all but two were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, and 77.1 per cent of non-ICU patients were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, according to Hinshaw.

More than a third of Albertans have not received a vaccine, a number that includes children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated.

Until rates improve, there is a risk to health-care systems, immunocompromised people and the unvaccinated, say experts — especially as fall approaches and kids return to school.

"We're not sure yet if we will be lucky like we were last year without an influenza season," said Carr. "But certainly the combination of an influenza season and a portion of the population still at risk for severe health outcomes, it doesn't take long for the health care system to be overwhelmed."

With files from CBC News

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