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Facing stark choice on COVID-19 response, Alberta delays third phase of reopening plan

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Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro at yesterday's COVID-19 update news conference. Image credit: Chris Schwarz, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Cornered by an upswing in the rate of COVID-19 cases and a frightening rise in cases of the more infectious B117 variant, Alberta's United Conservative Party government was forced yesterday to shelve its plan to move immediately into the third phase of its reopening.

Under the circumstances, a return to even stricter measures to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus might be called for, but Health Minister Tyler Shandro's admission that the government just couldn't open up as fast as it would like was better than the alternative of trusting the UCP's instincts.

Going full Texas and saying full speed ahead and damn the pandemic, thereby guaranteeing a third wave of COVID-19, was widely expected by media to be the government's likely course of action, so props to whoever persuaded the so-called COVID cabinet committee* to wait. My money's on Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw.

But Shandro's repeated effort to blame Alberta's high infection rate on Justin Trudeau and the Liberal federal government during yesterday's daily pandemic briefing with Dr. Hinshaw was embarrassing and not particularly persuasive.

Has Ottawa's slower-than-the-U.S. vaccine rollout caused the need to extend measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 longer than the Kenney government wishes? It's surely had an impact.

But is it the cause of Alberta's highest-in-Canada COVID-19 infection rate? Obviously not. Vaccines are being distributed by Ottawa to provinces and territories at the same rate.

Currently there are 6,176 active cases in Alberta, including 1,691 cases of the fast-spreading B117 variant.

Last night there were 140 cases per 100,000 people in Alberta, compared with 105 in B.C., 100 in Ontario, 79 in Quebec, two in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the N.W.T, and zero in Yukon and the Nunavut. The national average was 94.

So, no, our UCP government owns this one, and it seems likely the main reason is its reluctant acceptance of strong measures to control the spread of the disease and its tacit encouragement of anti-vaccination sentiment among the province's population. The presence of a rebellious and vocal group of anti-vaxxers in the UCP caucus surely doesn't help.

As the CBC's Robson Fletcher tweeted yesterday during the news conference:

"Alberta's health minister repeatedly blames the federal government for the COVID-19 situation the province finds itself in. He says it's due to the slow pace of Canada's vaccination rollout compared to the U.S. I wonder if health ministers in Atlantic Canada feel the same way"? (Emphasis added, of course.)

Well, when your previously high-flying government is as far down in the polls as Premier Jason Kenney's UCP is, the temptation to find someone to blame is understandable -- even if it's not very credible.

The Kenney government chose a downward trend in hospitalizations -- despite being a lagging indicator -- as its key measure for determining when the province could move to the next step in reopening, with 300 being the magic number.

But as Shandro conceded at yesterday afternoon's news conference, "while hospitalizations are indeed below 300, they've risen in recent days." What's more, he admitted the government expects hospitalizations to rise past 300 within a week. "And that's why we decided not to move to Step 3 of our path forward plan today. There will be no easing of any restrictions at this time."

Hinshaw noted that almost half of the COVID-19 patients now in hospital in Alberta are under 65, as are almost 90 per cent of those in intensive care. Since older citizens have been given priority for vaccinations in Alberta, this suggests just how effective vaccination is, although it's also likely older people try harder to avoid risky behaviour. (Full disclosure: your blogger received his first shot of Pfizer-BIONtech vaccine on Sunday.)

Whatever the government decided to do, it was bound to face strong blowback in a province that is polarized and sharply divided on vaccinations and the appropriate way to respond to the continuing pandemic.

The political calculation the cabinet COVID committee faced yesterday was stark, with whatever course of action it chose likely to cause severe blowback.

Continuing to reopen would have allowed the UCP to boast things are returning to normal in time for it to build a positive re-election narrative, plus get retailers, movie theatre operators, casino and bingo hall operators, adult sports teams, and religious organizations off its back.

It would have settled down the restive anti-vaxx caucus among Kenney's own disunited MLAs, and maybe even toned down the increasingly ugly and occasionally violent "freedom marches" by the province's far-right fringe.

But doing so would also have cost lives -- which, at this point in the pandemic, would unquestionably have been noticed.

It's no secret that vastly more people in Alberta are cautious about reopening too rapidly and growing increasingly skeptical about Kenney and the UCP government -- with several recent polls showing many voters turning to the NDP led by Rachel Notley.

*If the UCP had named this the COVID cabinet committee, it wouldn't have given the impression the government was endorsing the idea of more COVID. Well, they insist they're the experts.

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 credit: Chris Schwarz, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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