EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says help is on the way from the Canadian Armed Forces and elsewhere to battle a COVID-19 wave that continues to overwhelm hospitals.
Kenney said the province is finalizing a deal to provide eight to 10 intensive-care ward specialists, likely to be based in Edmonton.
Up to 20 trained Red Cross medical workers, some with intensive-care experience, are to be deployed in central Alberta.
And Newfoundland and Labrador is set to send a medical team, including five or six intensive-care staff, to work in the northern oil hub city of Fort McMurray.
“I know that Alberta health-care workers will be grateful for the helping hand and that all Albertans are thankful for any assistance at this challenging time,” Kenney said Thursday in Calgary.
Kenney also announced that 25,000 public-sector workers will soon be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
The employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 30 and, if not vaccinated after that date, will have to show negative tests paid for at their own expense.
Tim Grant, the head of the public service, estimated that 15 to 20 per cent of public service workers are not fully vaccinated. He said those who don’t comply will be placed on unpaid leave.
“We’re not going to fire anyone,” said Grant. “Our aim is to encourage and educate all the members of the public service to get vaccinated.”
Alberta is dealing with a COVID-19 crisis that has seen well over 1,000 new cases a day for weeks while filling intensive-care wards to almost twice normal capacity.
There are more than 20,000 active cases and more than 1,000 people in hospital with the virus. On Thursday, there were 307 people in intensive care — 263 with COVID-19.
Alberta Health Services has had to scramble and reassign staff to handle the surge of intensive-care patients far above the normal capacity of 173 beds.
The result has been mass cancellation of non-urgent surgeries and doctors being briefed on criteria to use if they must make instant decisions on who gets life-saving care and who doesn't.
In recent days, doctors have called for a swift lockdown or a “firebreak” to immediately reverse the tide of COVID-19 patients.
That would mean a mass shutdown of schools, non-essential businesses, and mass gatherings.
Intensive-care physicians, emergency-ward doctors, the executive of the Alberta Medical Association, and the Canadian Medical Association have issued such pleas in recent days.
Kenney, however, reiterated he wants to see if recent new health measures — such as a province-wide mask mandate, gathering restrictions, and a form of a vaccine passport — boost vaccination rates.
Kenney said case rates seem to be reaching a plateau, but acknowledged there is a fine line to walk with intensive-care wards, even with the extra beds, at 83-per-cent capacity.
“A cold snap that forces everybody indoors, upcoming Thanksgiving holidays and family gatherings — a lot of different things could suddenly increase transmission,” said Kenney.
“So, we’re watching all of the trends very carefully.”
Dr. Verna Yiu, the head of Alberta Health Services, also reported the death of an intensive-care nurse, noting that all staff are under severe stress.
Emergency-room physician Dr. Joe Vipond, an outspoken opponent of the United Conservative government’s approach to the crisis, said Kenney failed again by putting too much emphasis on vaccines rather than immediate action.
“We really need to have schools closed for a short-term period … and we need to really shut down large swaths of society while we can reset our health-care system,” said Vipond.
“I'm not sure how many more deaths it's going to take before Premier Kenney decides that he can do the right thing, but it looks like there's more deaths, more long-COVID, and more illness in the future.”
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said it’s time for Kenney to pass rules to ensure that all legislature members and political staffers are fully vaccinated. The NDP said all its members and staff have complied.
“It’s time for leadership,” said Shepherd. “We need to lead by example.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.
— With files from Alanna Smith in Calgary.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press