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Alberta deploys regional restrictions as COVID-19 numbers hit record high

"I wanted to take a moment to underscore the gravity of the situation that we're in today, and how bad things could get if Albertans don't make a real effort in the next few weeks."
MVT stock Jason Kenney
Premier Jason Kenney, declaring COVID-19 a public health emergency on March 17, 2020. Photo courtesy of Alberta government

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced regional restrictions across the province as Alberta hits new daily case and active case record highs for COVID-19, with further restrictions, like a curfew, on the table if the province can’t get its virus numbers under control.

On Thursday, Kenney announced new targeted COVID-19 measures for communities where cases are surging, after almost one year of denouncing a regional approach to controlling viral spread.

Starting Friday, COVID-19 hotspots where there are more than 350 active cases per 100,000, and where they have more than 250 active cases, will have enhanced public health measures in place.

As of Thursday, these communities include Edmonton, Calgary, Airdrie, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Strathcona County.

These communities will have all junior and senior high school students move to online learning. Indoor fitness and sports will be shut down starting Friday, and restaurants will be asked to strictly police patios to ensure only members of the same household are dining together.

Once in place, these targeted restrictions will remain for at least two weeks for any community or area that reaches the case threshold. After 14 days, the enhanced measures will be lifted once the municipality falls back below the threshold.

In extreme cases, a curfew will be implemented when communities hit a threshold of more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people, or if a municipality requests it.

“The restrictions currently in place will not bend the curve fast enough to get this third wave under control before the summer,” Kenney said.

On Thursday, Alberta hit a record high of new daily COVID-19 cases, with 2,048 diagnosed overnight, pushing the province to another record high of 21,385 active cases in total, surpassing the previous record set in December at 20,976.

Another 1,329 variant cases were reported overnight. Variants now make up 62 per cent of all active cases in the province.

There are currently 632 Albertans in the hospital with COVID-19 and 151 of them are in intensive care.

"I wanted to take a moment to underscore the gravity of the situation that we're in today, and how bad things could get if Albertans don't make a real effort in the next few weeks," Kenney said.

The premier said the province already has very strong public health measures in place and only five per cent of transmission is happening in workplaces.

“The vast majority of transmission is happening at home and through social activity,” Kenney said.

The premier said the province has only been able to identify 2,500 cases of in school transmission since Christmas out of 720,000 teachers, staff and students. Kenney said that means around one-third of one per cent of students have been impacted by in-school transmission

“Nevertheless, there is extra curricular transmission and we did find over the Christmas break that the extension of online learning in junior and high schools was very helpful in reducing just general social spread,” Kenney said.

“That's why we are proceeding with this recommendation.”

Stronger fine collection

Alberta Health Services and law enforcement will continue to issue fines for non-compliance of COVID-19 health measures. To make sure Albertans take these fines seriously, the province will have additional backstops in place, including stronger fine collection.

If you are given a fine and you do not pay it, Kenney said you will not be able to renew your driver's licence.

“And there'll be other implications with respect to registry services. These fines won't affect the majority of folks who are following the rules and are doing their part to keep their communities safe,” Kenney said.

Regional approach

For the past year, Kenney and Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw have been avoiding a regional approach to health restrictions in the province. That changed Thursday.

Earlier this month, Kenney spoke with reporters saying the province wouldn’t be taking a regional approach to health measures after members of his caucus continued to ask for regional restrictions. Kenney said the province's health zones are too big to reflect real local differences, while the geographic areas in the province, which number around 230, are too small.

At the time, he said another issues with a regional approach is that people move around and take the virus with them. He also said the province doesn't want to be in a situation where it is medically sealing Albertans into their own local area and not permitting travel.

Kenney said Thursday there is always the possibility Albertans are going to engage in non-essential travel, but the government is urging Albertans to stay home.

“I'll say something very clearly that I've not said before: at this point, I encourage people, if they can possibly do so, to stay home, and if they can possibly do so, to stay in their own community,” Kenney said.

“We've advised against non-essential travel in the past (and this) is more important now than ever.”

The premier said virtually every other jurisdiction in Canada has taken a regional approach during the pandemic, finding it effective to focus on controlling areas with the highest levels of spread.

“That's what we're doing here,” Kenney said.

“There always is that that chance of transmission through travel, and that's always going to exist in a free society. But it doesn't make sense to us that we would apply the these new measures with the same rigour to a sparsely populated area with very low viral spread.”

Follow the rules

The premier said there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to tackling COVID-19 and there are many factors that play into how a virus will spread in an area and it does not just depend on the stringency of health restrictions.

Population, density, climate and weather all play a part in viral spread, Kenney said, but most importantly it comes down to the willingness of a population to comply with public health measures, which varies greatly.

"The important thing is if Albertans take this seriously, and I think that more stringent measures like this can at least get people's attention that this really matters,” Kenney said.

“And if people follow what we're calling them to do, especially in those areas where there is a surge in cases right now, we can get past this and let the vaccines start to beat the variant.”

Tuning out

Kenney said a “good number” of people have started to tune out of COVID-19 news, which makes it difficult to get the message about health measures across.

“Some people have just ‘moved on’. And they're so tired of it. They aren't listening to these news conferences or government messages or advertising,” Kenney said.

The premier said the province plans to use the Emergency Alert System in the province to send out a message to Albertans about the restrictions.

“We're going to put that in a very loud and visual way in front of everybody, hopefully, to regain their attention,” Kenney said.

Alberta has given out 1.52 million doses of vaccine, which is 34,191 doses per 100,000.

There are now 292,765 Albertans fully vaccinated with two doses.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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