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'Necessary step:' Alberta bringing in tighter restrictions in COVID-19 hot spots

EDMONTON — Alberta is targeting COVID-19 hot spots with tighter restrictions that include at-home learning for junior and senior high school students and a ban on indoor fitness and sports.
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EDMONTON — Alberta is targeting COVID-19 hot spots with tighter restrictions that include at-home learning for junior and senior high school students and a ban on indoor fitness and sports.

Premier Jason Kenney also says selective regional curfews will be considered if numbers go higher.

"Today Alberta is taking another hard but necessary step," Kenney told a news conference Thursday.

"I know we are all tired of this pandemic and just want to move on."

The restrictions will apply to areas with more than 350 cases per 100,000 population and will be in place for a minimum of two weeks.

The areas include the cities of Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Airdrie and Strathcona County.

Restaurants are still allowed to serve people outside, but Kenney said the government will step up efforts to make sure they verify that diners sitting together are from the same household.

Any curfews would be applied regionally and only when certain thresholds are met and when municipalities request it.

The province will also step up its enforcement of public-health measures.

Alberta has been seeing more than a thousand new daily cases of COVID-19 for weeks and Kenney has faced calls from some medical experts and the NDP Opposition to bring in more health restrictions to bend that curve down.

Earlier this week, Kenney pushed back on new rules.

On Monday, he said existing restrictions were sufficient and more people just need to follow them, adding that Albertans are so COVID-fatigued, any new rules would likely be ignored. 

On Wednesday, Kenney said his government was considering targeted restrictions, calling health directives useful but a statistically hit-and-miss proposition.

"The notion that there's a direct linear relationship between restrictions and viral spread is not the experience of this pandemic,'' said Kenney.

On Thursday, however, Kenney said restrictions were critical to bending the curve, and rejected suggestions he was pursuing inconsistent policy. He said governments need to be nimble to react to changing data and threat levels.

“Our policy will not be governed by a foolish kind of consistency,” he said.

“It will be governed by principles and our goals: controlling spread to avoid large-scale preventable deaths, to protect the health-care system, and minimize the negative impact on our broader society.”

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney continues to make policy decisions on the fly through the lens of politics, not public health.

The last time Kenney imposed broad restrictions, three weeks ago, 17 United Conservative backbenchers spoke out against the rules as an unnecessary infringement on personal freedoms.

Kenney has not sanctioned the backbenchers, saying he respects free speech.

Shepherd said Kenney, facing low poll numbers, has been loath to bring in any new health measures or confront his in-house critics because that would risk fracturing his fragile caucus and imperil his leadership.

“Jason Kenney has continually spread misinformation throughout this pandemic, continually undermined public health measures, (and) looked the other way while 17 of his MLAs, nearly a third of his caucus, does the same,” said Shepherd.

“What we have from him today is he suddenly, on a dime, 24 hours after undermining public health measures, wants us to give him applause for once again acting last and acting least.”

Kenney said the leading indicators of infection are still rising. There were 632 people in hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday, 151 of them receiving intensive care.

Kenney said the test positivity rate in the province is sitting at 10 per cent and variants now make up more than 60 per cent of all cases.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported another 2,048 cases and three more deaths. 

The total number of active cases sat at 21,385, a number that is inching closer to a record set in mid-December.

Hospitals are bracing for a surge in cases as there is a two-week lag between infections and hospitalizations.

Edmonton, Calgary, and northern zone hospitals are cutting non-emergency surgeries by as much as 30 per cent to free up resources for COVID cases.

Earlier Thursday, Alberta's pediatricians urged Kenney to immediately bring in new public-health measures to better protect children from COVID-19.

The doctors, in a public letter, say the dominance of the more infectious virus variants can have serious health consequences for the young, such as a pediatric illness that causes inflammation of body organs including the heart and brain.

They also said even mild COVID cases can lead to much larger problems down the road, such as seizures, gastrointestinal problems and heart palpitations.

Alberta is currently not allowing indoor social gatherings and outdoor get-togethers are limited to 10 people.

Retail stores are limited to 15 per cent capacity. Restaurants can serve diners only on outdoor patios. Entertainment and recreation venues remain closed.

About 1.5 million Albertans have received at least one inoculation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press