Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has apologized—sort of—and called a state of emergency following his team’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a fourth wave and driven Alberta’s health care system to the brink of collapse.
In July, as infections were plateauing and vaccination rates were increasing, Kenney lifted all public health restrictions, including ending asymptomatic COVID testing and removing mask mandates. He promised Alberta the “best summer ever,” and in June, his right-hand man and executive director of issues management, Matt Wolf, boldly tweeted, “The pandemic is ending. Accept it.”
Fast forward to this week, when Alberta made international headlines for having some of the worst COVID rates in North America, made worse by the Delta variant, and the province’s health care system is at risk of collapse: hundreds of elective surgeries have been cancelled to save resources for COVID management and more people are in ICU beds today than ever before, 90 percent of whom are unvaccinated.
Part of the problem is Alberta has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Canada, with only 60 percent of Albertans fully vaccinated. Experts predict that herd immunity can’t be reached unless more than 80 percent of people are fully vaccinated.
"It is now clear that we were wrong, and for that I apologize," Kenney told reporters during a news conference on Wednesday.
But later, when pressed, he inexplicably said he does not regret lifting restrictions when he did.
“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.”
He instead said he’s sorry for being too optimistic in July, but that the available public health data informed his decision at the time.
Today’s data is markedly different, which Kenney acknowledged.
“We must deal with the reality we are facing,” Kenney said. “We cannot wish it away.”
Kenney then admitted that Alberta’s situation is worse than the “worse-case-scenario” originally predicted by modelling, and the province could run out of staffed ICU beds within 10 days.
For weeks, as infections started to climb, Kenney refused to implement new restrictions and a vaccine passport. Instead, he introduced a vaccine lottery system that made anyone who got vaccinated eligible for million-dollar lotteries and other prizes. Earlier this month, he said his government would start handing out $100 to those who decided to get vaccinated.
Starting Thursday, several restrictions, including limiting indoor gatherings to people within the same household plus one other household, have come into play. The new measures affect nearly every sector in the province, with rules currently in place for restaurants, gyms, schools, and faith worship.
Alongside sweeping new restrictions in Alberta is a vaccine passport system that Kenney initially vowed not to implement. Instead of calling it a “vaccine passport,” though, Kenney’s team says it’s a “restrictions exemption program."
Starting Sept. 20, businesses that implement a restrictions exemption program will be exempt from restrictions. Anyone who doesn’t want to get vaccinated will have the option of showing a negative COVID test, taken within the last 72 hours, and paid for privately.
Kenney’s announcement is largely viewed as a boon for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau during what’s shaping out to be a tight federal election race between the Liberals and Conservatives. Trudeau has taken shots at how poorly Conservatives in Alberta have handled the pandemic in an attempt to make the federal Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, look bad. Last year, and again a few days ago, O’Toole praised Alberta for responding to the pandemic better than Trudeau’s government did. O’Toole is yet to respond to Kenney’s Wednesday announcement.
The full list of sweeping restrictions is available on Alberta’s website.
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