'We must defeat these variants,' says Kenney as Alberta returns to tighter COVID-19 restrictions
Cabinet committee decided to take 'strong steps' to bend the curve, Premier Jason Kenney says
With Alberta on track to have up to 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital by the end of April, Premier Jason Kenney announced a return to Step 1 restrictions Tuesday to try to slow the spread of highly contagious variants of coronavirus.
Facing a growing third wave of the pandemic that could be worse than the two that came before, the premier laid out some alarming projections of what could happen over the next few weeks.
"People who right now are contracting COVID today, about five per cent or more of them will show up in hospitals two weeks from now," Kenney said.
"These are short-term projections, and they show that we are on track to hit a weekly average of 2,000 daily cases by the end of this month."
He said the province can expect to see up to 1,000 COVID patients in hospital by the end of April.
"Even at the height of the second, of the wave, back in December, we topped out at just under 1,900 cases a day. Now. we're well on our way to exceeding that," Kenney said.
Cases rise sharply
Kenney urged Albertans last week to follow the health measures already in place to stop the spread of the virus.
Yet cases continued to rise sharply over the past week, averaging almost 1,000 new cases each day over the long weekend. The surge in variants of concern has also accelerated.
Variant cases went from about 100 per day three weeks ago to 676 on Tuesday, Kenney said, and variants now make up more than 40 per cent of active cases.
"In the race between variants and the virus, the variants are winning," the premier said.
At his news conference, Kenney used a chart to illustrate the dangers posed by variants of concern.
The chart showed how one traveller who returned from B.C. spread the virus first through household encounters and then social visits that eventually resulted in 35 illnesses, one death and two people admitted to ICU beds.
"Similar stories are playing out across the province," he said. "These variants are a real enemy of public health and of lives, and tired though we may be, we cannot stop now. We must defeat these variants."
WATCH | Kenney outlines new restrictions:
Latest case numbers
On Tuesday, there were 10,809 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, a 27 per cent increase in the last week.
The province reported 767 new variant cases and three more deaths, though two of those deaths happened in May and July 2020.
There are currently 328 patients being treated in Alberta hospitals for the illness, including 76 in ICU beds.
The province has worked to expand the capacity of the health-care system during the pandemic, Kenney said, so hospitals can now accommodate up to 2,400 COVID patients.
Maxing out that capacity would, however, come "at a terrible cost," he said and mean cancelling all non-urgent surgeries and many other medical procedures.
"We believe we could accommodate a little over 600 in ICU units," he said.
"If we don't slow down this curve ... we are set to hit the maximum capacity of our system in mid-May, a great tragedy given that it's right around mid-May that we'll begin to achieve effective coverage of vaccines.
"So most importantly, these trends would challenge the health of thousands of Albertans and lead to many, many more preventable deaths, just at the end of this thing."
Kenney said his job is to make "tough choices" to protect lives and livelihoods.
"The only responsible choice to save lives and protect our health-care system is to take immediate action," he said. "Alberta will be returning to, effectively, Step 1 of our four-step 'path forward' plan. These measures are designed to buy us time to get enough Albertans vaccinated so we can finally get through this thing."
With the return to Step 1 restrictions as of noon Friday, restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafés are limited to outdoor patio dining, takeout, curbside pickup and delivery.
WATCH | Alberta communities battle P1 variant outbreaks:
Patio seating is limited to a maximum of six people per table, and those at the table must be from the same household or two close contacts for people living alone. Liquor service will end at 10 p.m. and patio dining must close by 11 p.m.
All other changes go into force as of midnight Tuesday.
Retail stores must reduce from 25 per cent capacity to 15 per cent of fire code.
Team sports and group fitness will not be allowed. Some youth sport training can take place but with new restrictions. Places of worship are required to remain at 15 per cent of capacity.
Adult performance activities are not permitted, including dancing, singing, acting and playing musical instruments. Libraries must also close.
'Best summer' in history
"Last Thursday, I said that if we just stick to our guns for a few more weeks, we'll head into what I truly believe will be the best summer in Alberta's history," Kenney said. "If we just get through the next few weeks, that remains true."
Some Albertans will disagree with the government's decision to reimpose restrictions, Kenney said, including some in his own caucus and party.
"I fully expect to hear some of those opinions in the coming days, and I welcome that," he said. "I've always welcomed a wide-ranging debate on how best to rise to the challenge of this pandemic. I just ask that the debate be informed by facts."
The pandemic and responses to it have been a polarizing issue, he said, with some wanting hard lockdowns over the long term and others fewer or no restrictions.
"Alberta's approach has been to find a sensible, safe, middle ground, a common ground that could unite most Albertans," he said.
Kenney said his government could not ignore the science and rising case numbers.
WATCH | Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley reacts to new measures:
"I cannot in good conscience ignore the evidence and opt for a policy that could result in hundreds of preventable deaths," he said. "I cannot and will not do that. Nobody wants to keep restrictions any longer than is absolutely necessary."
NDP health critic David Shepherd said he was pleased the government decided to close in-person dining but said restaurant owners need more financial support. He also said Kenney refuses to accept responsibility for his handling of the pandemic.
"He continues to blame Albertans and accepts no blame for his own actions and mismanagement," said Shepherd in a statement. "To put it simply, this premier cannot be trusted to manage this pandemic, and we will continue to press for real action to help Alberta families and businesses ride out a third wave far worse than it ever had to be."
'Path back to normalcy'
Kenney announced a new committee of government MLAs will work with Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Health officials to plan what he called "a path back to normalcy" as soon as safely possible.
"Vaccines, of course, remain our best hope," he said. "In the coming weeks, we'll be able to say that almost one-quarter of Albertans have achieved immunity, either by the vaccine or natural immunity through infection."
He said almost half the population should be immunized by the end of May and two-thirds should have some level of protection by end of June.
"By mid-September, we project, if Albertans take us up on the vaccines, as I hope they will, that almost three-quarters of Albertans will have a good degree of immunity," he said.
"This is the end of the tunnel. It is our path to recovery; it is our path to freedom."
The province's goal of offering the vaccine to every adult who wants it by the end of June remains unchanged, Tom McMillan, assistant director of communications for Alberta Health, said in a statement after Kenney's news conference.
The premier's timeline, he said, reflects the fact that not every Albertan will choose to get the vaccine and that it will take two to three weeks after receiving a first dose for people to begin developing immunity.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said the challenge now is for Albertans to bend the curve one more time.
"If we can stop this sharp increase we are seeing and break the chains of transmission, as well as continuing to get vaccinated when we are eligible, then we will save lives and get back to normal as quickly as possible," she said.
"If we do not keep cases low now, then it will take longer for us to see the benefits of the vaccine, and we will be dealing with this pandemic into the summer months, which none of us want to see....
"I ask all Albertans to do their part and abide by the restrictions in place to avoid another surge of cases that will take months to get back under control."
More people can queue for vaccines
More Albertans joined the queue for vaccinations Tuesday.
Albertans with eligible underlying health conditions who were born in or before 1973 were able to book appointments, either online through AHS or by calling Health Link, as of 8 a.m.
Eligible people in the 2B group (those born between 1957 and 1973) can also book appointments at participating pharmacies. A full list of can be found on the Alberta Blue Cross website.
As of Tuesday morning, Albertans born between 1957 and 1966 are eligible to book appointments for the AstraZeneca-Oxford shot.
Eligible Albertans in this phase can choose to wait to receive a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine when Phase 2D fully launches in May.
The online booking tool has been changed to allow up to four eligible family members to book at the same time at the same clinic, Alberta Health Services said in a statement Monday.
Bookings are being opened by birth year. The first eligible people in group 2B began booking appointments last week.
Albertans who became eligible on Tuesday include:
- Those born in 1956 or before.
- First Nations, Métis and Inuit people born in 1971 or before.
- Those born between 1957 and 1973 with high-risk underlying health conditions.
- Those born from 1957 to 1966, for AstraZeneca vaccine only.
As of Monday, 707,482 vaccine doses had been administered, and 116,198 Albertans had been fully vaccinated with two doses.