Alberta Politics
Premier Jason Kenney, tieless, at Sunday’s daily COVID-19 briefing (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

Community transmission of COVID-19 seen in Alberta; all classes cancelled; no layoffs of health workers — for now

Posted on March 15, 2020, 11:07 pm
9 mins

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.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw at the same briefing (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

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.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, also on Sunday (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

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.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro last Friday at the government’s combined political news conference and COVID-19 briefing (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

“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.”

Finance Minister Travis Toews, same time, same station, on Friday (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

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.

14 Comments to: Community transmission of COVID-19 seen in Alberta; all classes cancelled; no layoffs of health workers — for now

  1. Just Me

    March 16th, 2020

    Who knew that Alberta would be squeezed and crushed in an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia?

    Who knew that a virulent pandemic would halt Kenney’s desire to bring free-market private health care to Alberta?

    Who knew that Kenney’s default position to rely on wild claims of international conspiracies against Alberta would be revealed to all for being the bunk they are?

    Who knew that, in the middle of all this chaos, it is becoming clearer that Kenney is not the miracle-worker, genius, special-agent of change that was advertised during last year’s election?

    Who knew? Who knows?

    All I can say is that Kenney has made a very, very powerful enemy…and I like this enemy very, very much.

    Reply
  2. Carl Hunt

    March 16th, 2020

    Based on sound market principles that are the mantra of the UCP, our medical staff should walk off the job for their own health and a bigger paycheck. Fortunately for Albertans our healthcare providers (not politicians) will provide excellent medical advice, service & sacrifice, unlike the politicians that are trying to privatize healthcare, parks and everything else in this province.

    Reply
    • CovKid

      March 16th, 2020

      I’d give you an uptick if I could but I realize our host’s restrictions.

      Reply
  3. Dave

    March 16th, 2020

    For now, it would seem AHS jobs are safe and for now the Alberta government has put its battle with doctors on hold. When the world starts to return to normal, whenever that is, expect this uneasy truce to end. A rigid ideologue, he is our version of Thatcher, the lady may briefly pause if necessary, but not turn.

    Also, expect Mr. Kenney to do as little as possible to respond to political pressure and try to get the Feds to foot the bill. He is not much interested in helping anyone, other than his social conservative supporters and corporate financial backers, just avoiding getting too easily blamed for bungling things.

    Reply
  4. Bob Raynard

    March 16th, 2020

    I really couldn’t blame health a care worker if he/she decided that this would be a good time to leave the province. Employment opportunities elsewhere are excellent at the moment, and since unemployment here is a very real possibility, it makes sense to take a job elsewhere and avoid competing with all the newly unemployed health care workers from Alberta.

    Plus it would be really satisfying! At the moment health care workers are essentially being told, ‘put your health at risk now; we will lay you off in a few months’.

    Reply
  5. Kang

    March 16th, 2020

    Can you tell me why the media asking questions at yesterday’s news briefing did not ask the Premier if he regrets destroying the Edmonton Super Lab when the construction penalties he spent would have completed the facility? As Dr. Hinshaw noted, they can only do one thousand tests per day and they are having to jerry-rig swabs. So that means our ability to track the disease is very limited.

    Shandro is wearing “smart boy” glasses. Who does he think he is fooling? We are not in this together. Kenney and his collection of MLAs are not my government. My government would never attack doctors and nurses and steal pension funds so they can give subsidies to American oil companies. Kenney and company need to resign yesterday and go back to the gutters whence they came.

    Reply
  6. Hana Razga

    March 16th, 2020

    So far, Jason Kenney’s response to this dire situation is very very weak and hinges on his bluster about what the Federal government must do.

    Reply
  7. WLH

    March 16th, 2020

    “seven new infections happened at a single community event in the Calgary area” – this caught my attention and I immediately was curious as to exactly what these people were doing at this community event. What they were doing might give some better insight into how the virus is transmitted. No reporters seem to be curious about this – is it just me?

    Reply
  8. Lars

    March 16th, 2020

    “What happens to Mr. Kenney’s promises if they won’t fork over the money remains an open question.”

    Not really. Kenney will present it as another betrayal of Alberta by the federal Liberals, and himself as Alberta’s selfless champion.
    He can’t lose.
    Only Albertans can lose.

    Reply
  9. anon

    March 16th, 2020

    You know when I look at Kenney and Matt Wolf, his Issues Manager, I’m somehow reminded of the following passage from Milton’s epic poem:

    “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
    But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
    Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;

    Reply
  10. Just Me

    March 16th, 2020

    So, Kenney J is in the legislature, pumping the resilience of Alberta and the excellence of its public health care. Too bad it was about to break it, but this may hold him off.

    He’s also pumping his own coming financial rescue package, calling it unprecedented.

    It seems that Ken-Doh hasn’t learned anything about managing expectations for his efforts, as well as diminishing the negative effect of his own bizarro screw ups.

    Everything can be summed up by Kenney’s photo-op at the airport. There he was, overseeing the screening procedures in place, checking paper lists of passenger manifests and procedure cards, and greeting arrivals and guiding them to quarantine. This reminds me that stunt he pulled when he was the Federal Immigration Minister, the one where he organized a citizenship swearing-in ceremony in the SunNews studios? The one that was found to be a fraud because only two people present were actually needed to be sworn-in, the rest taking the same oath were ministry staffers playing new Canadians and the others were re-sworn in after their official swearing-in. (Sworn-in twice? Must be the best Canadians ever.)

    Kenney sure loves his theatre. And he mocks PMJT for being a former drama teacher.

    Reply
    • CovKid

      March 16th, 2020

      He would have been right behind Stockwell Day’s rear belch of spray if he hadn’t been afraid of water despite his buoyancy.

      Reply
  11. e.a.f.

    March 16th, 2020

    How Kenny fares will depend upon how many die. The more people who die the weaker Kenny’s position as leader of the party becomes. His own M.L.A.s night dump him if too many voters die. People who lose “loved ones” during this time, are going to remember come election time. People grieve for a very long time, especially if the death came due to neglect by the government. Just remember the Mothers Against Drunk Driving and how they became active and some are active 20 or more years later, after the death of their child.

    Kenny doesn’t seem to have grasped or doesn’t care that vast numbers of Canadians are no longer covered by E.I., in that they are not insurable, or it takes so long to qualify for the hours. Many part time workers, students working their way through school, may not qualify. How does he expect them to get by?. Is he going to make accessing welfare easier? Some one should ask him that question.

    If Alberta has more deaths per capita than other provinces, Kenny is toast and so is his political philosophy.

    As to the fight with the doctors and nurses: COME TO B.C. Outside of the Lower Mainland and Greater Victoria prices aren’t too bad. There is lots of work.

    As to the cases you mentioned, if they attended the dental conference in Vancouver, B.C. a couple of weeks ago, they may have picked it up there. Dentists in B.C. are being told to isolate themselves if they attended. approx. 14K people attended from all over Canada and a few from other countries.

    B.C. has announced closures every where. The hospitality industry is taking a huge hit.

    If Kenny is hoping Trudeau will pick up the tab, good luck with that. It is doubtful the feds will be making exceptions for Alberta. The rest of the country isn’t going to be too interested because while we pay sales tax Alberta has refused to institute one. If Alberta is broke, its their own fault. they didn’t want a sales tax.

    So everyone try to stay healthy and wash your hands.

    Reply

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