Premier Jason Kenney says he wants to eliminate Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine passport program as soon as it’s safe to do so, but noted that it’s not yet the right time, as hospitals continue to feel pandemic pressures.
Kenney said Thursday the government will move toward a widespread relaxation of public health measures once pressure on the health system and COVID-19 hospitalizations trend down.
The vaccine passport system in Alberta, called the Restrictions Exemption Program, permits businesses to operate with fewer restrictions if patrons provide proof of vaccination, negative test results or a medical exemption.
“While there is some good news that can be encouraging for all of us, now is not the right time to be relaxing measures when … hospitals are under so much pressure,” Kenney said at a briefing on Thursday.
Decisions will be based on data and public health advice, he said — and though he did not offer precise timelines, he noted that he’s “pretty confident” it will come before the end of March.
“I’ll just tell you this — we will eliminate the Restriction Exemption Program as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Kenney’s comments came as Alberta recorded an increase in total COVID-19 hospitalizations to 1,469 from 1,418. The province’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 106 people in intensive care units across the province. Alberta also reported 14 additional deaths and 3,218 additional lab-confirmed cases.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said children under the age of two will be eligible again for provincial PCR testing, since rapid tests and vaccinations are not currently an option for this age group.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan is revising its public health orders as it moves to treat the COVID-19 Omicron variant like other common respiratory viruses. Starting Friday, close contacts of people who test positive will not be required to self-isolate.
Anyone who is infected, immunized or not, will still need to self-isolate for five days, but the change eases the isolation requirement of 10 days for the unvaccinated. Health officials said Omicron is so transmissible that many people who have been able to dodge COVID-19 thus far will be exposed.
Total COVID-19 hospitalizations in Saskatchewan stood at 328 on Thursday — up from 13 a day earlier — with 35 people in intensive care units. The province also reported two additional deaths and 1,273 additional cases.
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
With lab-based testing capacity deeply strained and increasingly restricted, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will report figures that separate the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also test positive for COVID-19.
For more information on what is happening in your community — including details on outbreaks, testing capacity and local restrictions — click through to the regional coverage below.
You can also read more from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which provides a detailed look at every region — including seven-day average test positivity rates — in its daily epidemiological updates.
In Atlantic Canada, health officials in New Brunswick on Thursday reported a total of 141 COVID-19 hospitalizations, including eight people in intensive care units. The province also reported three additional deaths and 388 lab-confirmed cases.
The update came as Premier Blaine Higgs announced a plan to ease restrictions as of 11:59 p.m. local time Friday, dialling down to what the province calls “Level 2” of its winter plan. The shift will allow some businesses that were closed to reopen with capacity limits, while some sports and recreation activities will be allowed to resume.
“Yes, there will continue to be cases and a small percentage of those will require hospital care. But we have the tools to help us live with this virus today and in the future,” Higgs said.
Nova Scotia health officials said the number of people being treated for COVID-19 in designated hospital units stood at 93, with 15 people in intensive care units. The province also reported an additional 234 people in hospital related to COVID, including 127 people who contracted the virus after being admitted to hospital.
The province also reported one additional death and 366 lab-confirmed cases.
In Prince Edward Island, officials said Thursday 17 people were in hospital being treated for COVID-19, including one in intensive care. One more person is in hospital with COVID-19 being treated for other issues, health officials said. The province also reported 247 additional lab-confirmed cases.
Newfoundland and Labrador health officials said Thursday 20 people were in hospital, with seven people in ICUs. The province, which sent students back to in-person education earlier this week, also reported 378 additional lab-confirmed cases. The province also reported four additional deaths.
In Central Canada, Quebec on Thursday reported 3,153 hospitalizations — down by 117 from a day earlier — with 235 people in intensive care. The province’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 56 additional deaths and 3,956 lab-confirmed cases.
Ontario on Thursday reported a total of 3,645 COVID-19 hospitalizations — down by 371 from a day earlier — with 599 people in intensive care. The health ministry’s COVID-19 dashboard also showed 70 additional deaths and 5,852 additional lab-confirmed cases.
The update came as the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board said Ontarians who suspect they caught COVID-19 at work can make a claim even without a positive result from a PCR test. But the board said people should seek out a rapid test or medical professional’s diagnosis now that the gold-standard PCR tests aren’t widely available.
With access to lab-based PCR tests now restricted in many parts of the country, workers compensation boards in several provinces and territories are wrestling with what the standard will be for showing workplace exposure to the novel coronavirus. The workers compensation organization in Alberta, for example, will accept a positive rapid test, PCR test or a doctor’s diagnosis as part of the claim process, the province’s top doctor said Thursday.
In the North, health officials in the Northwest Territories on Thursday reported 151 additional COVID-19 cases, while Nunavut reported 57 additional cases. In Yukon, health officials saw 32 additional cases.
Manitoba on Thursday reported 711 COVID-19 hospitalizations — down by nine from a day earlier — with 51 people in the province’s intensive care units. The province also reported 14 additional deaths and 582 additional lab-confirmed cases.
In British Columbia, health officials on Thursday reported a total of 977 COVID-19 hospitalizations — up 28 from a day earlier — with 141 people in the province’s ICUs. The province also reported 13 additional deaths and 2,033 lab-confirmed cases.
–From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 7:30 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Friday morning, more than 366.6 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.6 million.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off in a week, putting sports at centre stage following preparations that have been clouded by diplomatic boycotts and a pandemic that has forced the Games into a tightly sealed bubble.
South Korea reported 16,096 new coronavirus cases for Thursday, another daily record amid the spread of the Omicron variant, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said.
Australia suffered its deadliest day of the pandemic on Friday with nearly 100 deaths, but several large states said they expect hospital admissions to fall amid hopes that the latest wave would begin to subside.
In the Middle East, Israel has signed a deal to buy five million COVID-19 vaccine doses from Novavax, the country’s Health Ministry said on Friday. The vaccines are due to arrive in Israel in the coming months, pending regulatory approval, the ministry said. Financial details of the deal, which includes the option for an additional five million doses, were not disclosed.
In the Americas, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has “persistent deficiencies” in its ability to respond to public health emergencies, the U.S. congressional watchdog warned in a report, citing concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Africa, Morocco will reopen its airspace for international flights starting Feb. 7, the state news agency reported.
Meanwhile, health officials in South Africa on Thursday reported 4,100 new cases of COVID-19 and 160 additional deaths.
In Europe, booster shots could reduce future hospitalizations in Europe by at least half a million, the EU’s public health agency said.
-From Reuters and CBC News, last update at 7:30 a.m. ET