Alberta moves to halt indoor dining, limit retail capacity

With the province on track to have up to 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital by the end of April, Alberta 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, based only on transmission that has occurred to week. And we can expect to see up to 1,000 COVID patients in hospital at the end of this month.

“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.”

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 total 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 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.”

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 UCU beds.

The province has worked to expand the capacity of the health-care system to cope with the pandemic, Kenney said, so that hospitals could now accommodate up to 2,400 COVID patients but “at a terrible cost” that would 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.

“But we believe that based on the current trajectory, if we don’t slow down this curve, that 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.”

‘Tough choices’

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.”

If unchecked, the premier said, the third wave would threaten the maximum capacity of the health-care system by May.

With the return to Step 1 restrictions, as of noon Friday, restaurants, pubs, bars, lounges and cafes can open for outdoor patio dining, takeout, curbside pickup and delivery only.

Patio seating must be 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 take place 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. 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.

“And that includes undoubtedly some people in my own caucus and party. I fully expect to hear some of those opinions in the coming days, and I welcome that. 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.

“On the one hand we have some people who want what are called hard lockdowns and have wanted those on a long-term basis, others who believe that the threat is massively exaggerated and we should have few or no restrictions. But Alberta’s approach has been to find a sensible, safe, middle ground, a common ground that could unite most Albertans.”

Kenney said his government could not ignore the science or the case numbers.

“As premier, I cannot in good conscience ignore the evidence and opt for a policy that could result in hundreds of preventable deaths, of huge impact to our hospitals being flooded, and other critical health procedures being put at risk.

“I cannot and will not do that. Nobody wants to keep restrictions any longer than is absolutely necessary.”

‘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.

“By the end of May, that will be almost half of our population, and by the end of June, it will be almost two-thirds with some level of protection. 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.

“This is the end of the tunnel, it is our path to recovery, it is our path to freedom.”

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said the challenge now is for Albertans to bend down 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.

“This has been a challenging pandemic and we have one more hill to climb. 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 as provincial health officials grapple with surging cases of COVID-19 and highly contagious variants.

Albertans with eligible underlying health conditions who were born in or before 1973 became eligible to book appointments, either online through AHS or by calling Health Link, starting at 8 a.m.

Eligible people in the 2B group can also book appointments at participating pharmacies. A full list of participating pharmacies 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 shot. 

Eligible Albertans in this phase can choose to wait to receive a Pfizer 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.

Additional years will be added as more doses arrive. If supplies hold up, the province aims to vaccinate every adult Albertan by the end of June. 

Albertans who became eligible on Tuesday include:

  • Those born in 1956 or before;
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit people born in 1971 or before, and;
  • Those born between 1957 and 1973 with high-risk underlying health conditions.
  • Phase 2D (AstraZeneca): Born 1957-1966

As of Monday, 707,482 vaccine doses had been administered, and 116,198 Albertans had been fully vaccinated with two doses. 

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