Community transmission of COVID-19 is now taking place in Alberta as numbers of cases grew by 17 over the past 24 hours to 56, Premier Jason Kenney told the province’s daily briefing on the local spread of the global pandemic today.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said seven new infections happened at a single community event in the Calgary area, and that the source of two other cases remains a mystery — so there can be no more doubt there are unknown infected individuals out there spreading the disease.
Accordingly, the province acted on Dr. Hinshaw’s recommendation that all classes from kindergarten to university, as well as child care centres, will be closed until further notice. Students are expected to stay at home, she said.
This was undoubtedly the right move, but one imagines considerable chaos will result as working families attempt to cope with the edict.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told the newser that all K-12 students will receive final marks for the year to date, and will progress to their next grade level next year.
She also noted that provincial achievement tests would be cancelled — surely a bitter pill for the United Conservative Party Government that will break hearts at the Fraser Institute. Teachers will see it as a silver lining to a very dark cloud.
Dr. Hinshaw also noted that, effective immediately, last week’s exemption allowing gatherings of more than 250 people if they happened to involve religious worship has been kiboshed. This decision is a sound one too, although the timing was not so good. God only knows, and I use that phrase advisedly, how many people were infected at Sunday services throughout the province this morning.
Mr. Kenney told the news briefing that an additional $500 million will immediately be added to the provincial health budget to respond to the coronavirus, a smart move that will doubtless be popular with worried Albertans. It remains to be seen if Mr. Kenney will try to use approval of that necessary expenditure to wedge the NDP Opposition into allowing his budget to be passed without delay. We’ll find out, presumably, when the Legislature meets tomorrow.
During Friday’s briefing, Health Minister Tyler Shandro promised that plans to cut the numbers of nurses and other health care workers are off the table … for now.
“This has definitely changed everything,” he said of the rapid worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In response to questions from reporters, both he and Finance Minister Travis Toews promised Alberta Health Services would lay off no health care employees during the response to COVID-19.
This, as the CBC put it in its report, was “in sharp contrast to November,” when the UCP Government and AHS told health care unions that they intended to get rid off close to 5,000 public-sector health care workers, including eliminating 500 full-time equivalent Registered Nurses’ jobs, which would result in about 750 RNs disappearing from the system.
However, even with the plan to shrink the public health-care system temporarily on hold, the ministers’ commitment may be worth less than it appears when you parse their words and actions.
“We are going to make sure that AHS has the resources that it needs,” said Mr. Shandro. “We are not going to be making decisions in response to COVID-19 that are going to be political.”
Of course, anything can be spun to be what the system needs, just as anything can be spun to be “not political,” which doesn’t make either of those statements true. These words have the sound of talking points carefully constructed to mean not quite what they seem to say.
Plus, it’s largely up to the government to say when the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, so it’s hardly reassuring that it appears to be determined to return to its health-care downsizing and privatization program as soon as possible afterward.
Likewise, the government’s much touted changes to employment rules to make it a little easier for some employees to take paid leave if they are forced to self-isolate or must care for someone with COVID-19, still leave thousands of employees with precarious work with few options but to work sick or go without income.
“We will make sure that no one has to choose between work and doing what is necessary to protect public health,” Mr. Kenney promised on Friday. “This obviously would raise the risk of spreading the virus to co-workers and clients.”
But he also said, “I want to assure employers that we will ensure these actions will not be a further burden to your business.”
So how does he propose to square that circle?
The answer may be in what Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, who met with Mr. Kenney Friday to hear his pleas to fast track the UCP’s budget, told the Toronto Star. She said the premier told her “it is his expectation the province is not funding the paid leave, but instead expects the feds to cover off such payments through Employment Insurance.”
“They are not actually providing paid sick leave,” she explained to reporters Friday. “They are hoping that the federal government will expand access to EI.”
That would do nothing for gig workers. Moreover, even for those with precarious work who qualify, current EI rules still require medical notes for time off, and EI quarantine provisions do not apply to self-isolation.
The only way to actually ensure 14 days’ paid sick time for self-isolation would be to pass legislation requiring it, which could include a provision for the province to pay employers back. Ms. Notley said the NDP would support such a law.
But how likely is a UCP Government to do that?
It’s certainly not promising that the government’s plan seems to hinge on the success of efforts to pressure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals into paying for it. What happens to Mr. Kenney’s promises if they won’t fork over the money remains an open question.
As for Mr. Shandro’s ill-timed war with Alberta’s physicians, it apparently continues.
Social media was full of complaints the past few days by individual doctors disgusted the government’s disrespect of their work, vowing to leave Alberta, and begging the UCP to put its radical restructuring of their pay formula on hold for the duration of the fight against COVID-19.
Well, negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association resumed recently, and there’s been no announcement they’ve fallen apart, so perhaps there’s hope that can be resolved.