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Facing fourth-wave crisis, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces vaccine passport system, wide-ranging public health restrictions


Facing fourth-wave crisis, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces vaccine passport system, wide-ranging public health restrictions

EDMONTON—Amid a raging fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has declared a state of public health emergency in his province and introduced a slate of new measures — including a vaccine passport system — in a major about face for the United Conservative leader.

Kenney’s announcement came at a news conference Wednesday evening that followed a trying day for Alberta, where the health-care system and its intensive-care units have been struggling to keep up with surging cases.

A person had died at a rate of one per hour Wednesday — making for 24 deaths from COVID-19 — along with 1,609 new reported cases.

The premier acknowledged the situation in his province is turning out to be more severe than the worst-case-scenario of recent modelling and said Alberta could run out of staffed intensive care beds within the next 10 days.

“Unless we slow transmission, particularly among unvaccinated Albertans, we simply will not be able to provide adequate care to everyone who gets sick based on current trends,” Kenney said. “How bad this situation becomes and how long it lasts is now up to each and every one of us.”

Despite having promised for weeks that the province would not do so, Kenney told the news conference a vaccine passport system will be brought in for some businesses beginning on Sept. 20. These include restaurants, some events and non-essential businesses.

Eligible businesses and events that agree to require proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test will be exempt from other public health restrictions being brought in. So, starting next week, a restaurant can only host indoor dining if it requires proof of vaccination.

“The government has reluctantly decided to adopt the restriction exemption program, a proof-of-vaccination program for participation in certain discretionary activities that have a higher risk of viral transmission,” Kenney said. “No one will be compelled to get vaccinated against their wishes, and a negative test option will be it offered as an alternative.”

There are also new, general public health measures for the province, such as mandatory work-from-home orders, mandatory masking in schools, and restrictions on indoor social gatherings.

Even those fully vaccinated aren’t permitted to gather with more than one other person outside their household. Those not vaccinated are not permitted to socialize.

There are capacity restrictions on fitness centres, places of worship and other public spaces.

Adopting a vaccine passport is a dramatic shift for Kenney, who had vowed not to bring in a system that restricted where unvaccinated people could go publicly. He had previously raised concerns about privacy laws and instead suggested that businesses or event organizers could themselves require passports.

The new clampdown also comes after Kenney’s government lifted most COVID restrictions at the beginning of July, promising residents the “best summer ever.”

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The premier appeared to apologize for those actions early in his news conference, but later, during followup questions from a reporter, was quick to clarify that he wouldn’t apologize.

Instead, Kenney said he was sorry for being “too enthusiastic” that the province would be open for good and for underestimating the virus. He defended the decision to lift restrictions when he did.

“At least in this society, you can’t sustain serious intrusions into people’s lives permanently,” said Kenney.

“So, no, I don’t apologize for the decision to relax public health restrictions in the summer.”

Kenney said the data supported such a move at the time.

Alberta’s COVID-19 situation has become one of the worst in the country. For weeks the province has been seeing 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day, on average, with a steady rise in hospitalizations — most of them unvaccinated people. Alberta’s vaccination rate has slowed over the summer and only has just over 71 per cent of eligible people fully vaccinated.

Alberta is also reaching out to other provinces to see if they have space for ICU patients, should it be needed, and may have to implement triage protocols in hospitals if the situation gets worse.

Hospitals are struggling and thousands of non-emergency surgeries have been postponed. Alberta Health Services has been adding surge capacity to ICUs but has still been seeing beds across the province fill up almost completely. Earlier this week, intensive care units were at 90 per cent capacity.

“This is a crisis of the unvaccinated,” Kenney said. “Ninety per cent of our intensive-care patients are unvaccinated.”

The news conference followed a tense caucus meeting a day earlier that had lasted for much of Tuesday afternoon and into the evening.

A caucus source told the Star there were disagreements from some United Conservative MLAs around implementing a mandatory vaccine passport system and more public health measures. Some MLAs are unhappy with Kenney’s leadership during the pandemic, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

After taking a vacation in August, Kenney returned and reinstated a provincial mask mandate, put in place a 10 p.m. liquor service curfew, and announced that $100 gift cards would be on offer for anyone getting a jab between Sept. 3 and Oct. 14.

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

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