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Jason Kenney ignores doctors' calls for mandatory measures to curb COVID spread

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Kenney at a press briefing in October. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

The pandemic is bad and quickly getting worse in Alberta with 860 new daily cases reported yesterday, but Premier Jason Kenney remains deeply committed to the please-knock-it-off-guys approach to controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Only, this time, he really means it. Really!

Obviously desperate to be seen by his party's libertarian wing as having nothing to do with a "lockdown," the premier's disembodied voice made it loud and clear to yesterday's COVID-19 media briefing there's no way Alberta's about to consider the "circuit breaker lockdown" urged in a letter earlier in the day from hundreds of Alberta physicians and other health-care workers.

"We are at a dangerous juncture in this province," the premier said from his second 14-day stretch of home isolation after coming in contact with another infected person on Monday, so now there will be a two week "pause" on a few activities, plus some "strong recommendations" about others.

But as for the "strong and decisive mandatory measures" urged by the 430 doctors and their health-care colleagues, forget about it.

Nope, the premier said, "we are putting our faith in the good judgment of people."

But "if Albertans do not respond over the next two weeks," he warned, "we're going to have to consider additional targeted measures."

That's a lot of qualifiers. But Kenney's not for turning, as they used to say of a political hero of his, so his United Conservative Party government must be determined to hunker down and follow the strategy it also applies to collapsing oil prices -- praying for things to get better before there's an election and it's credibly accused of mismanaging its response.

Well, he certainly seems to have the support of the chief medical officer of health these days -- Dr. Deena Hinshaw urged Albertans yesterday not to let anyone they don't live with into their homes for two weeks. There will be no enforcement, but anyone who takes issue with the premier's response to the coronavirus pandemic can expect to be accused by his issues managers of trying to undermine Hinshaw's informed opinions.

Of course, the people doing the undermining yesterday were several hundred doctors, who arguably are also pretty well informed on the same topics.

According to the 430 doctors and their health-care allies: 

"The time for incremental measures has passed, and voluntary measures, requested October 9, have not blunted the rise in cases. We see no other way to break chains of transmission and decrease cases, than to implement a 'circuit breaker' of short, strict measures ... The evolving evidence suggests that strong, time-limited measures will not only minimize the second wave but could prevent the need for the complete lockdowns that become inevitable when the health system becomes overwhelmed. A failure to control COVID-19 spread means we cannot expect our economy to recover quickly or strongly."

That last point, of course, was directed at Premier Kenney -- the only politician in the UCP government whose opinion really matters.

With 860 cases over the previous 24 hours and 225 people in hospital, including 51 in intensive care, the government declined the shutdown of indoor dining, bars, casinos, religious services and theatres the docs had urged.

While no one at the press conference said it, the province's intensive care units are now at 130-per-cent capacity, according to unconfirmed reports, with adults being treated for COVID-19 in pediatric ICUs.

Instead, the government ordered a two-week ban starting today on group fitness classes, some team sport activities and group performance activities in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.

Additional half-hearted "enhanced" measures such as closing pubs at 11 p.m. (last call at 10), limiting religious services to one third of capacity, limiting weddings and funerals to 50 people, and strongly recommending no social gatherings in private homes were also announced for the same communities.

"If these measures are not successful, it will be necessary to implement more restrictive measures," the government's news release sternly warned.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro also had a virtual walk-on part at the news conference, urging listeners via video link to please sign up for the province's under-subscribed and unpopular smartphone app, which it would be irresponsible to call the Kenney tracing app.

One wonders, of course, if Kenney had the app on his smartphone when he got too close to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in Ontario yesterday, the Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford also refused to budge from a similar course in the face of projections done for his government that COVID-19 cases could hit 6,500 a day by mid-December.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, however, said the Progressive Conservative government is not considering changing its thresholds for closing down businesses, which have been criticized by many observers for being too lax.

This led to a buzz yesterday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be about to have his own "just-watch-me" moment and use Ottawa's emergency powers to impose national measures to get the pandemic under control.

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.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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