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New health rules in Alberta failing to bend COVID-19 curve: top doctor

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EDMONTON — Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says the latest round of health restrictions in the province isn't getting the job done on high rates of COVID-19.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the numbers would have been worse without the restrictions, but she is preparing new, tougher health measures for Premier Jason Kenney’s government to consider.

“I will be blunt — so far we are not bending the curve back down,” Hinshaw told reporters Monday.

“We are still witnessing very high transmission of the virus, which is putting enormous pressure on our hospitals, intensive care units and health-care workers.”

Alberta’s daily case counts have been over a thousand a day since Nov. 24 and over 1,600 a day for almost a week. It also has the highest rate of new infections of any province.

Hinshaw announced 1,735 new cases Monday, with 609 people in hospital and 108 of them in intensive care. There are more than 20,000 active cases and 631 Albertans have died.

The United Conservative government had planned to review next week the new rules Kenney announced Nov. 24.

Those measures include restrictions on businesses designed to keep them open while reducing spread of the novel coronavirus. There is also a provincewide ban on gatherings in people’s home beyond those who live there. 

The Opposition NDP and health critics, including physicians and infectious disease specialists, have said it was folly to try to slow the spread while keeping open everything from bars and restaurants to casinos and water parks.

Hinshaw said it’s difficult to pinpoint why the restrictions didn’t bend the curve, adding it’s always a combination of the rules themselves and of people’s willingness and ability to follow them. 

“I think people are doing their best, but obviously there is also many who are very, very tired (of COVID) and also many who may not have the resources (to follow the restrictions),” she said.

Hinshaw said she’s preparing a new set of recommendations for Kenney’s COVID-19 oversight team, a subcommittee of his cabinet.

“I do believe we do need additional restrictions in order to bring our case numbers down and protect our health-care system," she said.

Kenney, speaking in the house during question period, rejected Opposition accusations that his measures are too weak to work.

“The government has taken real action,” Kenney said.

But he added: “We are very concerned about the current spike in cases. And if additional restrictions are necessary in light of this situation, they will be taken.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney needs to take swift action to implement tougher new rules, since it takes 10 to 14 days to see the effects, given COVID-19’s incubation period.

“I think Dr. Hinshaw was very clear today: the grab bag of half measures we saw from Jason Kenney and the UCP a couple of weeks ago have failed to really deal with the problem,” said Shepherd.

“What we need to see from Jason Kenney and the UCP is the leadership that frankly we should have seen two weeks ago.”

The looming question becomes what new restrictions are coming.

Last Thursday, Kenney told a Facebook town hall he is concerned about cases in large cities and that any new health restrictions would likely target Edmonton and Calgary. 

At the same time, Hinshaw said there is a concerning rise in rural COVID-19 cases, the virus is a provincewide concern and even a single case can move like wildfire.

Asked Monday if she and Kenney are fundamentally in agreement on how to target COVID-19, Hinshaw said both rural and urban case rates are worrisome.

“The question of what kinds of restrictions will be necessary to bring our curve back down — that’s a question that will require a lot of discussion,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press