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Strained by COVID-19, Alberta's rural communities desperate for guidance from government

Rural Alberta communities are looking for guidance from the government as they tackle rising COVID-19 case numbers.

'We want them to take the lead and the responsibility'

Gary Harris receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Grande Prairie, Alta., on March 11, 2021. The northwestern Alberta city lags behind the rest of the province in vaccine uptake. (AHS)

Rural Alberta communities are looking for guidance from the government as they tackle rising COVID-19 case numbers.

In Edson, Alta., 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, the town's hospital is seeing its highest hospitalization rates since the start of the pandemic.

"Some of our local health-care professionals that have been working our emergency room over the last number of days, they've been inundated with people coming in with COVID symptoms," said Mayor Kevin Zahara.

"A number of our beds in our acute centre are taken by COVID patients, more so than we have at any other point in the pandemic."

Zahara also said they are inching closer to their highest-ever number of cases. As of Aug. 30, there were 99 active cases in the community.

"Our peak was in wave two, around 112 to 116 cases," he said. "So certainly concerning to see this rise over the last number of days."

Zahara believes the increase in cases could be due to a number of factors including the easing of restrictions, a larger segment of the population being unvaccinated, and various pipeline projects that are bringing out-of-province workers into the community.

Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara said the town's hospital currently has more patients in acute care than any other point in the pandemic. (Scott Neufeld/CBC News)

He said they are working hard with residents to control the spread of the coronavirus but acknowledged that some guidance from the provincial government would go a long way.

"We certainly have a problem here in Alberta," he said. "And it'd be nice to see some leadership on this issue, even to inform us of what the modelling is showing and what the plan is moving forward."

It's a similar situation in Grande Prairie, Alta., 455 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

On Saturday, Alberta Health Services transferred six patients from Grande Prairie's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital to neighbouring health-care centres in order to create room for an increase in patients with COVID-19.

Mayor Jackie Clayton said the town is alarmed that the hospital is nearing capacity.

On behalf of city council, she sent a letter to Health Minister Tyler Shandro looking for guidance on how to deal with rising case numbers.

"We don't have health-care professionals on staff," Clayton said. "We aren't health-care experts as elected officials. 

"And we think that its AHS and the province's role to make a plan, implement that plan and provide us with clear guidance in regards to what the municipal response and plan should be."

Vaccination rates in Grande Prairie are lower than the provincial rates of vaccination. The city has about 49.7 per cent of the total population immunized with at least one dose of vaccine, with 43 per cent having received both doses.

Comparatively, 66.3 per cent of Alberta's total population has had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 59.4 per cent are classified as having both doses. 

Clayton said masks and vaccines are encouraged, but ultimately, those decisions are made by people within the community.

"We want them [the Alberta government and AHS] to take the lead and the responsibility," she said.

"What this letter says is that as municipal politicians, we don't feel that it's appropriate for us to be making decisions on health-care matters." 

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