Health Minister Tyler Shandro and AHS CEO Verna Liu at a 2020 press conference. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

After managing to stay completely off the radar for a two-week vacation that stretched to at least 23 days, there was a credible-sounding Jason Kenney sighting in Calgary last night.

If the man spotted at a southeast Calgary shawarma restaurant while a dark SUV full of bodyguards idled nearby really was Alberta’s elusive premier, Kenney will have his work cut out for him when he makes his return official.

He faces considerable pent-up demand for answers to questions about the parlous state of Alberta’s health care system as the fourth wave of COVID-19 overwhelms hospitals, the unexpected decision yesterday by Alberta Health Services to mandate vaccinations for thousands of employees, physicians and contractors, the dangers of sending unvaccinated youngsters back to school today, and the optics of leaving the province with no one in charge when all hell is breaking loose.

And if it turns out the man seen by anti-Kenney Senate-abolition candidate Duncan Kinney’s brother was not the premier after all, remember that people still think they see Elvis wandering the streets of American cities every now and then.

Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu surprised almost everyone when she called a news conference yesterday afternoon to announce the province-wide health authority will require all employees, physicians, contracted health care providers, students and volunteers to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Halloween. That means all of them must have had their second jab by Oct. 16.

Yiu told an afternoon news conference the decision was AHS’s alone and had been thoroughly vetted by the health authority’s lawyers — “we are very confident that the policy is legal.”

She said affected personnel who don’t comply and can’t make credible health or conscience argument for an exemption will be sent home without pay.

It had to be done, she added, because the province’s hospitals are rapidly being swamped by new COVID cases, which have been rising rapidly since the government vowed in July Alberta was “open for good” and lifted almost all restrictions to celebrate the “best summer ever” despite the arrival of the highly infectious Delta variant in Alberta.

It’s highly unlikely, though, AHS made that decision without consulting the United Conservative Party government. Presumably the government draws a distinction between health care employees and its vaccine-resistant rural base. Still, this does seem like fairly dramatic course correction for a government that long insisted there was no way it would require any Albertans to take a vaccine and suggested workplace vaccine mandates would be impossible.

But that was then and this in now — and things right now are looking pretty grim in the hallways of Alberta’s overburdened hospitals.

Yesterday morning, Finance Minister Travis Toews spun an upbeat story about the province’s fiscal situation at a news conference staged to present the first-quarter financial update, a statutory requirement.

Still, despite some good news, Toews had to walk a bit of a tightrope — bragging about how higher prices fetched by Alberta’s bitumen will cut the province’s forecast deficit in half while still making things sound bad enough to justify cutting health care workers’ paycheques.

In the event, media at the news conference seemed more interested in pressing him on what the government is going to do about COVID.

Whatever it does, Toews said, it won’t involve vaccine passports. “The premier has been clear,” he told a reporter. “We’re not going with vaccine passports in this province.”

As for complaints that the premier, the health minister and the chief medical officer of health haven’t been around, which a reporter suggested made it look like the government “has abdicated responsibility and is not steering the ship,” Toews dismissed that as “an entirely false premise.”

Not a very good answer, perhaps, but better than Culture Minister Ron Orr’s dismal performance in Lacombe yesterday when an impertinent journo also asked about the premier’s notable absence. Orr stood by dumbly, then looked at his shoes, as press secretary Amanda LeBlanc shut down the news conference and shooed away the reporter with a cry of, “It’s about Culture Days!”

“We’re finished,” she said. “We’re finished.”

For those who agree that’s a possibility, if last night’s report is true, Alberta’s great helmsman will be back at the wheel shortly to tell us why it isn’t so.

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: Government of Alberta/Flickr

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...