EDMONTON — Alberta is expanding vaccine eligibility, buying more COVID-19 rapid tests and imposing new capacity limits and rules in a battle against the wildfire-fast Omicron variant.
The changes include half-capacity attendance for the upcoming world junior hockey championship, set to begin Sunday in Edmonton and Red Deer.
“More must be done urgently to protect our health-care system from the potential threat of Omicron,” Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said there were active Omicron cases in the province — an increase of nearly 600 from the day before.
She said variant case count is doubling every two to three days.
“Omicron is now our dominant strain and there is increasing community transmission in the province,” said Hinshaw.
“If someone tests positive for COVID, they should assume they have the Omicron variant.”
Kenney said vaccines remain the best defence against severe outcomes from Omicron.
To that end, he announced anyone 18 and older can book a third booster shot, provided the second one was more than five months ago. A week ago, the province expanded booster eligibility to those 50 and older and to all health-care workers.
Health Minister Jason Copping said new limits on large events and public gatherings will work to further limit transmission.
Starting Friday, venues with a capacity above 1,000 people will be capped at half capacity. Venues with a capacity of 500 to 1,000 will be limited to 500.
Attendees must be masked at all times. Food and drink can’t be consumed in seats or at intermission to ensure masks are worn throughout.
“We need to avoid superspreader events,” said Copping.
The restrictions will also apply to upcoming Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames hockey games. Those National Hockey League teams have had games cancelled in recent days due to leaguewide COVID-19 outbreaks.
Restaurants and bars complying with the provincial version of the vaccine passport also face new rules.
They will be limited to 10 people per table with no recreational activities, including dancing or billiards. They must also cease serving alcohol by 11 p.m. and close 90 minutes after that.
Those not participating in the vaccine passport program still cannot offer indoor dining.
Copping also urged Albertans to reduce their social interactions during the holiday season. Household gatherings remain limited to 10 people, not including children.
“Look at going to one family dinner instead of two,” said Copping, adding they also want businesses to cancel holiday parties.
Kenney said the government has distributed 2.5 million free rapid tests in recent days to Albertans through health-care sites and pharmacies.
He said they’re asking the federal government for more and are purchasing from a private supplier an extra 10 million that they hope to make available in early January.
Hinshaw reported 786 new cases of COVID-19 for a total of 6,405 active cases. There were also two more COVID-19-related deaths, bringing that total to 3,294.
There were 329 people in hospital, including 69 in intensive care. In pre-pandemic days, Alberta had a maximum 173 ICU beds, but officials have been adding ad hoc spaces since then and had to more than double capacity in the last wave to meet demand.
When it comes to third doses, the government is encouraging Albertans to take the first available mRNA vaccine given that both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna offer a high level of protection, particularly against severe outcomes.
The Pfizer vaccine will be offered to Albertans 18 to 29 years old for booster purposes. The province said there is a slightly increased risk of myocarditis in younger Albertans, especially men, if they get a Moderna shot.
Alberta Health noted that people are far more likely to experience myocarditis from COVID-19 infection than from the vaccine.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.