Alberta’s Infrastructure minister said Tuesday that the province has officially asked Ottawa for help with the COVID-19 crisis.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to boost health-care capacity during the public health emergency, we have formally asked the federal government to assist us with patient transfers and critical care staff,” Ric McIver shared on Twitter.
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In his letter dated Sept. 21 to federal Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair, McIver wrote: “We are preparing contingency plans, which include the possibility of transferring patients to other jurisdictions with spare capacity.”
The letter identified two ways the federal government could help:
- Providing aero-medical evacuation capabilities, including, where possible, skilled transfer personnel, to relocate patients outside Alberta;
- Augmentation to AHS of critical care staff, specifically intensive care unit registered nurses and respiratory therapists.
McIver requested an immediate meeting to discuss the requests.
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In a response to McIver on Twitter, Blair said: “Federal officials have been engaging their counterparts in Alberta for the past week to offer help.
“I have made it clear that when a request is received, it will be approved. We will work together to provide for the people across Alberta.”
On Tuesday afternoon, McIver tweeted an explanation for why the government did not send a letter to the federal government until after the election.
“I did not know who would win the election, hence did not know which minister (.ie. government) would be in charge today. So, today, the letter went out,” he tweeted.
However, McIver’s tweet did not mention that the Trudeau government will remain the government until a new one is sworn in.
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Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta has been reaching out to other provinces about potentially transferring patients to places with spare capacity.
The premier said Tuesday he’s spoken to almost all the other premiers to “compare notes” and discuss ways to manage capacity challenges.
“Earlier today, we initiated planning with federal agencies … to plan responsibly for worst-case scenarios,” he said.
“We do not currently need this support… but it’s prudent to plan.”
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The Opposition says the timing the the UCP’s request is political.
“Alberta’s front-line health-care workers need all the help they can get as they struggle with the emergency created by the UCP’s failure to act for months while this crisis escalated,” NDP health critic David Shepherd said in a statement.
“I hope the federal government is able to provide resources to relieve some of this excruciating pressure.
“Albertans should be appalled that Ric McIver waited until after the federal election to make this call to Ottawa.
“Once again, the UCP is focused on politics instead of the terrible price that Albertans are paying right now, with record ICU admissions and thousands of life-saving surgeries cancelled.”
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The Kenney/Dr. Deena Hinshaw news conference was preceded by a cabinet change announcement at 3:30 p.m.
Jason Copping was named the new health minister, replacing Tyler Shandro.
Copping is the MLA for Calgary-Varsity and was the minister of Labour and Immigration. Shandro will now serve as minister of that portfolio.
Shandro and Kenney have been facing sharp criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis that has pushed the provincial health-care system to the brink of collapse.
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COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been soaring for weeks, leading to the mass cancellation of surgeries and doctors being briefed on how to decide, if necessary, who gets life-saving help and who does not.
Kenney is also facing internal backlash from his own party rank and file and caucus members over his handling of the pandemic.
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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health has said the current spike was ignited when Kenney lifted almost all COVID-19 health restrictions on July 1, faster than any other province.
“I’m profoundly honoured to be asked to serve as minister of health during this pivotal time,” Copping said, adding he’s “resolutely committed to building immediate capacity.”
Copping said COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon and his first three immediate priorities as health minister will be:
1. Increase baseline hospital capacity permanently (Kenney later said that could include private or chartered options)
2. Educating vaccine-hesitant Albertans
3. Preparing health system to more adequately respond to future waves of COVID-19
Record high ICU cases
The province currently has the highest number of ICU patients since the pandemic began, an AHS spokesperson told Global News on Tuesday.
“There are currently 294 patients in ICU, the vast majority of whom are COVID positive,” Kerry Williamson said.
“AHS continues to do all it can to ensure we have enough ICU capacity,” he added. “AHS has opened 35 additional ICU surge spaces in the past seven days.”
AHS has added a total of 162 surge spaces, expanding Alberta’s ICU capacity to 335.
Provincially, ICU capacity (including additional surge beds) is 88 per cent.
“Without the additional surge spaces, provincial ICU capacity would be 170 per cent,” Williamson said.
“The number of patients in ICU has increased by nine per cent in the past seven days.”
Triage protocol has not been implemented, but health-care staff continue to be educated on the document and what it means, AHS said.
“The critical care triage protocol will only be implemented if all other efforts at creating additional capacity have been exhausted.”
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Daily COVID-19 numbers
On Tuesday, Hinshaw said 1,500 new cases of COVID-19 were identified in the last 24 hours out of about 13,600 tests.
As of Tuesday, there were 996 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 222 of whom were being treated in ICU.
Hinshaw said 29 new COVID-related deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
“Some of these individuals were double vaccinated and had pre-existing conditions… but most were not vaccinated at all,” she said.
“Our actions every day are literally a matter of life and death.”
Alberta’s positivity rate sat at 11.1 per cent.
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Kenney pointed out the R-value in both Edmonton and Calgary dipped below one last week.
“This is small but still important progress. It reminds us all we can get through this… We still have a long way to go.”
Who’s eligible for third doses?
Alberta also expanded the eligibility for third “booster” doses of COVID-19 vaccine. The changes bring Alberta in line with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
Individuals with advanced HIV infection or immunodeficiency syndromes and patients receiving high-dose systemic corticosteroids are among those now able to get an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine:
· Recipients of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T-cell therapy.
· Individuals with moderate to severe primary immunodeficiency (e.g., DiGeorge syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome).
· Individuals with Stage 3 or advanced HIV infection and those with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
· Individuals undergoing immunosuppressive therapies (e.g., anti-B cell therapies, high-dose systemic corticosteroids, alkylating agents, antimetabolites, or tumor-necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors and other biologic agents).
· Transplant recipients, including solid organ transplants and hematopoietic stem cell transplants.
· Individuals with chronic kidney disease who are receiving regular dialysis.
· Individuals in active cancer treatment (chemotherapy, immunotherapy or targeted therapies), excluding those receiving only hormonal therapy, radiation therapy or surgery.
· Individuals on certain medications for autoimmune diseases, including rituximab, ocrelizumab and ofatumumab.
Third doses of COVID-19 vaccine are also available for seniors living in congregate care.
On Friday, the Alberta advisory committee will meet to talk about expanding boosters to other vulnerable Albertans.
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On Sept. 20, Alberta’s version of the vaccine passport — the restrictions exemption program — went into effect at non-essential businesses.
The program permits businesses who opt-in to continue operating as usual (with masks required indoors) by requiring proof of vaccination from all patrons. Those businesses who opt-out of the REP must abide by masking, capacity and operational restrictions.
Outgoing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the way the province has been communicating changes and approaches to the public health crisis has been “unbelievably frustrating for municipalities, it’s unbelievably frustrating for businesses who are expected to adopt new rules at the drop of the hat.
“All of this stuff happens in the absence of any consultation with people on the ground,” he said.
“The province has abandoned telling anybody what they’re doing, because they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re making it up as they go along. So I get to watch at the same time as everyone else.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
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