Premier Jason Kenney, two months after declaring victory over COVID-19, is now offering $100 to Albertans who aren’t fully vaccinated to curb nation-leading cases of the illness that have again pushed the province’s hospitals to the brink.
Kenney said 70 per cent of eligible Albertans are fully vaccinated, and 78 per cent have had one jab, but immunization rates are stalling and the unvaccinated are swamping hospital beds.
He defended the $100 payout — to those over 18 who now get their first or second vaccination shots — against accusations it’s unfair to those who already got their shots.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this, but this is not a time for moral judgments. This is a time to get people vaccinated,” Kenney told reporters Friday in Calgary.
He noted past incentives, including three $1-million lotteries, have not adequately moved the vaccination needle.
“We have left no stone unturned and yet we have the lowest vaccination rate in Canada,” Kenney said.
“I’m much more concerned about protecting our hospitals than I am about some abstract message that this ($100) sends.”
The government also announced a provincewide mask mandate is back for all indoor public spaces and workplaces, except in schools, where decisions are up to school boards.
All licensed bars, restaurants and pubs must stop alcohol sales by 10 p.m., and all businesses are asked to rethink having staff return to work.
Unvaccinated people are asked to limit close contacts to 10 people or less.
In recent weeks, Alberta has seen an increase in COVID-19 averaging more than 1,000 cases a day for the past week — the highest in Canada.
The province reported Friday that there were 487 people in hospital, with 114 of those patients in intensive care. That’s double the numbers from 11 days ago.
The fourth wave has been fuelled by the more contagious Delta variant. The result has been emergency-room bed closures, patient transfers and cancelled elective surgeries.
Alberta Health Services announced another round of surgery cancellations across the province Friday as intensive care units filled to 95 per cent capacity.
“It is tight,” said Dr. Verna Yiu, head of Alberta Health Services, the province’s health-care provider.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the provincial chief medical officer of health, said: “It is clear we are at risk of exceeding our province’s ICU capacity if we do not make changes.”
Yet, Kenney’s government declined to bring in a vaccine passport as is being done in Quebec, B.C., Ontario and Manitoba to encourage vaccination. In those provinces, proof is required to enter bars, restaurants and sports events.
Kenney said there are concerns those rules violate health privacy, but noted some businesses and professional sports teams in the province will require fans to show proof of vaccination.
The Opposition NDP said a vaccine passport is needed now and could be downloaded online or on smartphones. NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney needs to act on it now rather than get left behind.
Kenney’s government has not brought in new rules since lifting all but a handful of health regulations on July 1. Since then, municipalities, universities, schools boards, sports teams and businesses have introduced their own rules on masking, testing and vaccinations.
This is the third time in four COVID waves that Kenney’s government has been criticized for waiting for numbers to hit dangerous levels before acting.
In May, doctors had to be briefed on rules to triage patients as the third wave pushed the health system to the breaking point before Kenney brought in a renewed range of health restrictions.
Kenney declared victory over the virus on June 18, announcing at that time almost all health restrictions would be lifted, the first in Canada to do so, citing the fact that 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least one vaccine dose.
On Friday, Kenney was asked if he regrets declaring COVID-19 was manageable.
“We made a decision based on the evidence in front of us,” he said, adding that he relied on Hinshaw’s advice.
Balancing health restrictions with keeping the economy open has bedevilled Kenney’s government throughout the pandemic.
Past restrictions on gathering and masking were met with fierce resistance from some rural areas.
Some members of Kenney’s caucus have publicly protested health rules and reportedly voiced their objections this week to any new restrictions.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said Kenney’s $100 plan appears driven by an ideological reluctance to impose any health restrictions — a move that could result in more strife.
“I don’t think it’s going to play out well,” said Bratt of Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Not only are you bribing the unvaccinated, who are the cause of the problem, you are punishing everybody else.
“We’re already seeing a clash between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in society. This is going to accentuate it even more.”
The Canadian Press