Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to speak as COVID-19 cases continue to soar in province

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EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was to speak Tuesday as he faced growing calls for a lockdown to stall soaring cases of COVID-19 that are pushing hospitals to the breaking point.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, said the federal government is ready to help with a renewed economic shutdown as necessary.

"If Alberta were to take further steps and go into a lockdown, federal supports for businesses, for individuals, would kick back in. And we'd make sure we were there to support people," Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.

"Our officials at multiple levels have been reaching out to Alberta and to Saskatchewan to offer any and all help from Canadian Red Cross to military to extra equipment to airlifting in nurses and doctors from other jurisdictions who have offered.

"I hope to be speaking with Premier Kenney tomorrow and Premier (Scott) Moe soon as well to again reiterate our commitment to being there to support the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan who are facing an extraordinarily difficult, heartbreaking situation right now."

Kenney, in a weekend radio interview, rejected the idea of a lockdown.

He said it would not be fair to the 83 per cent of eligible Albertans who have stepped up to get at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Alberta's hospitals are dealing with a crisis situation of severe patient overcrowding due to COVID-19. Alberta has more than 21,000 active cases, dwarfing totals in other provinces.

The surge overwhelmed the capacity of 173 intensive care beds weeks ago, forcing the province to create ad hoc spaces and reassign staff. That, in turn, has led to the cancellation of thousands of non-urgent surgeries.

Doctors are being briefed on how to decide who gets life-saving care and who doesn't when resources run out. The head of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association has said some critical care patients are not being put on ventilators because there is not enough staff.

There were 318 people in intensive care Tuesday, most of them stricken with COVID-19. About 90 per cent of COVID-19 patients in critical care are either partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.

Almost two weeks ago, Kenney announced new measures — including some gathering restrictions and a type of vaccine passport — to try to slow down the spread and give more people an incentive to get vaccinated.

Case numbers, however, have continued to average well over a thousand a day, with about 1,700 new cases reported each day over the weekend.

The Alberta Medical Association and infectious disease specialists have said the only solution is an immediate lockdown, shutting down schools, businesses and attendance at sports events, and fully compensating those affected.

The province has been slow to react to rising numbers in each of the last three waves of the pandemic, as Kenney has scrambled to balance public health with keeping the provincial economy going.

Kenney lifted almost all health restrictions July 1, then failed to act throughout the summer as cases and hospitalizations spiralled.

He said he didn't impose new restrictions in the summer because he didn't think COVID-weary Albertans would follow them.

Kenney has also come under fierce criticism from members of his own United Conservative Party and caucus. Some UCP backbenchers are urging fewer restrictions while others demand Kenney impose tighter rules.

Some want him to resign.

Last week, former cabinet minister Leela Aheer called for Kenney to step down, saying he failed to lead on COVID-19 when the window of opportunity was open in August.

On Tuesday, fellow UCP member Angela Pitt was asked by reporters on a Zoom call if she has faith in Kenney’s leadership and whether he should still be in the top job.

“The answer to that question is no, I don’t, and I don’t think that my constituents do either," she said.

The United Conservative Party also said Joel Mullan, the party’s vice-president in charge of policy, has been fired. Mullan publicly called last week for Kenney to resign for failing to act consistently and effectively on COVID-19.

“The democratically elected board of directors voted to remove Mr. Mullan from his position for breaking the code of conduct and confidentiality agreement,” UCP spokesman Dave Prisco said in a statement.

Mullan, in an interview, disagreed.

Mullan said he was let go for publicly sharing one of his own emails calling for a leadership review. “Ultimately, I think the reason I’m out is I spoke out against the leader.”

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said the COVID-19 crisis is the result of crass politics.

He said Kenney has consistently failed to put public health first for fear of angering an anti-restriction faction of his political base, while those in his caucus have not shown the courage to speak up and force him to do just that.

“What I want to hear this afternoon is this premier’s plan to put an end to this (crisis),” said Shepherd.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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