Wood Buffalo leaders call for regional measures to curb COVID-19 surge

Municipal and Indigenous leaders in Fort McMurray are calling on the provincial government to bring in targeted regional restrictions to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases over the last month. 

11 First Nations and Métis leaders call for curfews, stay-at-home orders and change to vaccine eligibility

Mayor Don Scott and his council have been raising the alarm about surging numbers of COVID-19 in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Municipal and Indigenous leaders in Fort McMurray are calling on the provincial government to bring in targeted regional measures to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases over the last month. 

Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), provided a public update at Tuesday's council meeting on a meeting held with Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw earlier that day. 

Scott said Shandro and Hinshaw were encouraged to look at imposing regional restrictions similar to the approach taken by Ontario to deal with COVID-19 hotspots. Wood Buffalo declared a local state of emergency after meeting on Sunday.

"Right now, the provincial government has instituted a rule all over Alberta that treats every municipality essentially the same," Scott told council. 

"The problem is the pandemic is not treating our municipality the same. We need a different approach." 

Scott said council raised issues at Tuesday's meeting that ranged from the limited 9:30 to 3:30 operating hours at the MacDonald Island Park walk-in vaccination clinic to using mobile units to get more people immunized.

The possibility of using the Canadian military to help also came up during the discussions. The mayor said councillors repeated a plea for the province to offer vaccines to people under 40 in Fort McMurray, an area where the average age is 32.7.

"Whatever will help this region, we are asking for it," Scott said.

The mayor said he also spoke with federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Tuesday about the potential to get more rapid tests and vaccines to the area.

Curfews, stay-at-home orders

The Wood Buffalo region is grappling with the highest per-capita rate of active COVID-19 cases in Alberta. On April 1, the region had 166 active cases. On Tuesday, the number was 1,229, with all but 24 cases within Fort McMurray. 

Scott said he is meeting with the 11 leaders of First Nations and Métis settlements in the region on Wednesday. They have called on the province to impose more restrictions and increase vaccinations in the area. 

The leaders sent a letter to Premier Jason Kenney asking him to impose a number of restrictions. They include a stay-at-home order and curfew, rapid testing sites wherever people enter the community,a mass vaccination program for anyone over the age of 18, and the temporary closure of  all but essential businesses. 

Kenney has resisted calls to impose additional measures even as provincial case numbers reach numbers seen at the peak of the second wave last fall. 

When asked about the RMWB situation at her update on Tuesday, Hinshaw said no decisions have been made but suggested the area wasn't unique in its challenges . She said the province is looking at how best to allocate its limited vaccine supply to make the biggest impact. 

"[Fort McMurray] is not the only place in the province that has those high numbers," she said. 

"And whatever policy, if we do make a change, that it would need to apply not just to Fort McMurray, but that we would need to be looking at other areas that have similar challenges as well."

Hinshaw said AHS is working to speed up testing and contact tracing in the region.