Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw. Credit: Alberta Newsroom / Flickr

The first case of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has arrived in Alberta, Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw confirmed yesterday at one of her routine pandemic update news conferences

There was no sign of Premier Jason Kenney, of course, presumably because there was no way to spin this development as something for which his United Conservative Party government would want to take credit. 

So this development is newsworthy, although not exactly news, seeing as it was pretty obvious the variant was going to show up here sooner than later anyway.

Still, the single recorded case of the variant, confirmed in a traveller who came to Alberta from Nigeria via the Netherlands, made itself known with a definitely sinister here-we-go-again vibe. 

The day before yesterday, at another news conference, Kenney allowed as how his government is pondering a “moderate” relaxation of the rules for indoor gatherings, seeing as it’ll soon be the holiday season and everyone knows that Albertans don’t like following rules. 

We’ve heard this kind of thing repeatedly from Kenney’s lips throughout the pandemic, soon followed by new wave of COVID-19. 

Asked by a reporter if she thought the premier’s idea was a good one during yesterday’s news conference, Hinshaw equivocated: “I think it depends on the exact way that restrictions might be eased, as well as whether there are additional protective measures that we can put in in place to mitigate any increased risk of transmission.”

Suggested translation: No, but the premier won’t listen so we’ll try to limit the damage as much as possible. 

So, the reporter asked, what can you do to protect Albertans? 

She responded: “Well, ultimately, I don’t think it’s the right time to completely lift all of our indoor social gathering restrictions, so, whether or not there’s an easing, I don’t think this is the time to turn them all off …”

Presumably, this means something like: I’ll try to talk him out of the worst of it. 

It comes down, she added, to “how can we, potentially safely, ease off restrictions without enhancing the risk too significantly.”

Maybe in the next week or so, she added, “we might be contemplating expansion of booster eligibilities.”

So there you have it. We have seen this behaviour by both the premier and his CMOH before, most recently during the “Best Summer Ever,” which preceded Alberta’s disastrous fourth wave last fall. 

Kenney clearly has concluded we Albertans have forgotten all about that. We’d best brace ourselves for a fifth wave, then!

Since the premier’s executive issues manager, Matt Wolf, is leaving the government on Friday, we should probably expect the tweet about how the pandemic is ending — accept it! — to be sent in a week or so by his replacement, Tara Jago. 

Meanwhile, Hinshaw is not the only senior Alberta health official dealing with the UCP’s reluctance to follow common sense suggestions while responding to COVID-19. 

At the premier’s news conference Monday, Health Minister Jason Copping explained that the government supports Alberta Health Services’ policy requiring all health care workers to be immunized or be put on leave, but that it was going to ignore it anyway in rural areas where vaccine resistance is high. 

“I appreciate the tens of thousands of health-care workers who have made the right choice to get vaccinated,” Copping was quoted saying in the government’s news release, but “this directive is about protecting patient care — primarily in rural areas — which will always be my top priority.”

In other words, vaccine refuseniks in such places will be allowed to continue coming to work over the objections of the people supposedly in charge of AHS, the government has ruled, and AHS must provide them with “frequent and targeted COVID-19 testing.”

“Only sites considered at significant risk of service disruptions resulting from staffing shortages due to unimmunized employees will be part of the testing program,” the government release noted — a clear indication to anti-vaxxers that they can continue with their refusal to be vaccinated.

Asked by reporters to react to the policy switch during the Monday news conference, AHS President and CEO Verna Yiu was diplomatic, but clearly not pleased. 

“I acknowledge that the introduction of a temporary testing option may frustrate physicians and staff who have made the decision to get immunized, and those feelings are valid,” she began. (Emphasis added.) 

Notwithstanding the government’s wishes, she continued, “we were prepared to stay our course.”

“We were prepared to continue in our current route,” she said, but since the government decided to ignore that decision, “obviously the rapid testing provides us with an option to make sure the service is not disrupted.” 

Yiu’s language was delicately and cautiously phrased, but you can take it as given that, behind the scenes, AHS leadership is extremely unhappy with this cabinet interference in the safe operation of health care facilities for what are essentially political reasons. 

Everything will be rosy soon, finance minister promises

Finance Minister Travis Toews also held a news conference yesterday touting Alberta’s improved deficit estimates as if the UCP government was responsible for the recent summertime bump in international oil prices. 

The government’s latest fiscal update really deserves its own full commentary, but there are only so many stories one can cover in a day! So, for now, readers will have to make do with the CBC’s competent crunching of the numbers used by Toews to push the government’s long-discredited trickle-down fairy tale about how low taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals will somehow result in more tax revenues being paid over time as we all grow richer and richer. 

That said, while it is doubtful Toews is any less of a utopian market ideologue that our premier, it is remarkable how much better he is at making the government’s policies sound credible than Kenney. Indeed, he comes across as one of the few grownups in the UCP cabinet.

Editor’s note, Dec. 2, 2021: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of “Omicron” in the headline.

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...