Calls for more vaccine from Wood Buffalo in state of local emergency over COVID-19 spread
EDMONTON -- A northern Alberta municipality with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the province is calling for more vaccine.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council decided late Sunday night to declare a state of local emergency and enacted it Monday.
Council also passed a motion to ask Alberta and Ottawa for "accelerated vaccine distribution" and ask the governments for an emergency meeting with regional and Indigenous leadership.
The municipality of 83,000 had 1,102 active coronavirus cases as of Sunday.
Located along Alberta's very northeastern border, and home to Fort McMurray, RMWB has a case rate of 1,320 per 100,000. Comparatively, Edmonton and Calgary count about 385 and 489 cases per 100,000.
The mayor of the region that includes Fort McMurray says he has spoken with Premier Jason Kenney to find ways to fight a COVID-19 crisis that has brought on a state of local emergency.
Don Scott of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo says he's hoping for solutions, like targeted immunization, to address variant-fuelled infection rates putting pressure on hospitals.
Scott said he is also meeting with federal officials.
“We have a significant problem with the variants,” Scott said Monday in an interview.
Getting more people vaccinated could be a path out, he suggested.
“We're a young region,” he said. “A lot of people who live in this region have not been qualifying for the vaccines yet.”
RMWB TO MEET WITH PROVINCE AS ELECTIVE SURGERIES POSTPONED
Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray normally has seven intensive care beds, but has expanded that to nine and can expand further if needed. He said the hospital has 19 patients with COVID-19.
An AHS memo indicates the region is working to postpone elective surgeries and bring in additional health staff.
About 1.4 million Albertans in a population of roughly 4.4 million have received at least one shot of vaccine against COVID-19.
Premier Jason Kenney said he was happy to work with Wood Buffalo, and discuss the possibility of fast tracking vaccine product to the region, but pointed out vaccine uptake has been lower in and around the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray. According to Kenney, the uptake on first doses has been about half of the 25 per cent average elsewhere in Alberta.
"We need to make sure, because there's a lot of shift workers up there, that they're able to get to the vaccines when they're not working," the premier commented.
In a statement that day, the Oil Sands Community Alliance said it and local industry have been working with AHS and RMWB to reduce COVID-19 spread by putting in additional screening measures, providing isolation space and creating a social media campaign.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw were scheduled to meet with RMWB officials on Tuesday.
"We're going to be working with the local health authorities as well as the municipal government to see how we can get vaccines more conveniently delivered to people and work with the First Nations on the same issue," Kenney promised.
With the second-highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the province, Banff also asked Monday for vaccine priority from the province.
CLASSES GO ONLINE
Starting Monday, all Fort McMurray students will be learning from home for two weeks.
Both the public and Catholic school divisions announced the decision Sunday, with public superintendent Jennifer Turner calling it "the best decision for our students, staff, and community as the numbers, and rate of COVID spread continues to climb."
Grades 7-12 had been schooling at home since April 19, when a circuit-breaker type of action was taken by the districts to ensure more substitute teachers were available for elementary schools. Since Easter break, the number of students absent for classes in the public school division has average about 47 per cent, and between 30 and 35 per cent in the Catholic district.
A Catholic division spokesperson said there are more than 1,000 students and 100 staff currently isolating becuase of exposures.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, citing respect for local autonomy, approved the requests.
However, a similar request made last week to move all Grades 7-12 students home in the Black Gold School Division, south of Edmonton, was rejected. Just one school, Thorsby Junior Senior High, is being allowed to send students home, until May 10.
Black Gold superintendent Bill Romanchuk said high case counts and operational pressures were the reason the division made the ask.
Nicole Sparrow, spokeswoman for LaGrange, said Black Gold's data didn't justify its request.
“Forty one per cent of their schools that offer Grades 7-12 did not have any COVID-19 cases nor did they have any students or staff quarantining,” said Sparrow in an email.
“We will continue to work with the school division and monitor the situation closely.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the Black Gold situation suggests Kenney's United Conservative government is giving local bodies autonomy in name but not in practice. Notley said those on the ground at schools are best able to assess safety and operation.
“This education minister needs to get her act together and needs to be accountable,” she said.
With files from The Canadian Press' Dean Bennett and Lauren Krugel