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Alberta now has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in Canada

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Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw. Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

Today will be a significant day in Alberta's struggle with the coronavirus.

We will learn, this afternoon, just how bad things are.

Will they be getting a little better after a worrisome statistical bump? If they aren't, will they be they good enough that the present complacency can continue? Or will we have to look either at going back into another, harder-to-enforce lockdown or facing many more casualties?

The signs are not promising.

What was statistically evident at the end of last week is that Alberta now has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infection in Canada.

Surely, given the large differences in population among Canadian provinces, that is the most significant statistic, the best measure of a province's actual success or failure in confronting COVID-19. If so, for a province that likes to brag, this is nothing to brag about.

For weeks, provincial officials have been telling us to worry, but not that much; that we've been doing very well in Alberta even if we could do better; that you should probably wear a mask when you're indoors, but you don't have to.

This was a reassuring narrative made believable by the low absolute numbers of COVID-19 cases in the province, at least in comparison with places on this continent like New York, Georgia, Florida and Quebec.

However, as the Globe and Mail got around to reporting yesterday, now "Alberta is experiencing a surge of infections as cases accelerate faster than anywhere else in Canada."

There were 120 new cases reported on Thursday. There were 103 more on Friday. Young adults were overrepresented in these numbers. Contract tracers are finding a lot more close contacts than they did at the start of the pandemic, when more Albertans were behaving themselves. None of this is good news, except maybe the slight decline between Thursday and Friday.

British Columbia, by comparison, with over half a million more people, had 28 new cases on Thursday. Alberta has more than 18.2 active cases of the disease per 100,000 people, now marginally more than Quebec. B.C. has 3.75. New Brunswick has 0.1.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, says the surge is "a reflection of many people feeling that they are tired of the restrictions."

This is undoubtedly partly true, but it is also a convenient claim for Alberta's United Conservative Party government, and it is only part of the story.

Albertans, with their self-perception of rugged individuality, have never been particularly enthusiastic about masking up or staying home. The UCP's base -- which the party's leadership obviously fears, even though it certainly knows better -- is outright hostile to anyone wearing a mask, let alone mandatory masking.

Premier Kenney has said he's making "a very strong recommendation" that Albertans wear masks, but that there's no way he's going to order them to do it. In other words, pffffffft!

The anti-maskers who demonstrated yesterday in Calgary -- like the anti-vaxxers with whom they would occupy the bulk of any Venn diagram -- are more numerous and closer to the mainstream in this province than elsewhere in Canada. The farther south you go in Alberta, the more of them there are, and so the more this is true. It is also true that the farther south you go, the higher the per capita infection rate is. Nevertheless, the UCP treats pandemic deniers with kid gloves because of their enthusiastic support and likely also the fear they'll run to a far-right fringe party if thwarted.

Premier Jason Kenney obviously has a plan, and it's to relaunch the economy as quickly as possible, without too much thought for the consequences, and hope to be in a position to take credit for the boost from renewed economic activity.

"Alberta is now in Stage 2 of relaunch," it says cheerfully atop the Alberta government's COVID-19 website. "Albertans can and should confidently support Alberta businesses, while continuing to act responsibly and following all public health measures."

Meanwhile, so far at least it looks as if the premier and his health minister, Tyler Shandro, aren't going to be diverted from their War on Alberta's Doctors just because of some global pandemic.

Together, this is potentially a toxic mixture.

If there were 300 or more cases on Saturday and yesterday, brace yourselves, because the second wave of the first wave or whatever this is probably getting significantly worse. If there aren’t that many, that's good news, although we're hardly out of the proverbial woods.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta​

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