'Flirting on the knife's edge': Oilers welcome fans back as doctors warn a new lockdown is needed in Alberta
For the first time since the NHL suspended its 2019-20 season due to COVID-19 in March of last year, the Edmonton Oilers welcomed fans back into Rogers Place on Tuesday night.
Under Alberta's Restrictions Exemption Program, the pre-season game against the Seattle Kraken could have been played in front of a sellout crowd; a scenario not without risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).
“I think the risk isn’t zero and I think what we’re saying is we don’t have a lot of room on the runway anymore,” AMA president Dr. Paul Boucher told CTV News Edmonton on Tuesday.
Outside the arena doors, COVID-19 continued to push Alberta's health-care workers and ICUs close to their limits. With 20,513 active cases in the province, Alberta has close to half of Canada's 46,425 active cases.
The province had military personnel on standby to help, record ICU numbers, surgery cancellations and health-care staff recently educated on Alberta's triage protocols.
The situation caused the AMA to recommend a new lockdown period to Alberta's health minister.
"We're flirting on the knife edge," said Dr. Boucher, "and that's where the call came from."
Despite the call for a new lockdown, the Oilers hosted 13,000 fans at Rogers Place on Tuesday night.
Dr. Boucher commended Alberta's two NHL teams for announcing special COVID-19 preventative measures prior to the province's latest restrictions' announcement.
The AMA president said, while the optics of allowing large crowds to gather indoors aren't great, it shouldn't be the Oilers decision to make.
"It's really not, in many ways, the Oilers job to be gauging ICU capacity and how much risk they can take with opening the game," said Dr. Boucher. "That should come from our government."
While a sellout crowd at Tuesday's pre-season game was technically possible, Oilers Entertainment Group's (OEG) Tim Shipton said it wasn't likely.
"The good thing about pre-season for where things are at right now is that we typically expect between 60 and 70 per cent attendance," Shipton told CTV News Edmonton.
Alberta's Restrictions Exemption Program meant fans over the age of 12 needed to show proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test from within 72 hours, in order to attend the game.
The Edmonton Oilers are the only Canadian team in the NHL to allow unvaccinated fans to attend their games, a move infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger said could cause some problems.
"A three-days-ago rapid test, I think, also leaves a fairly large margin for potential error in terms of missing someone who could be infectious,” she said.
Meanwhile, even Shipton admitted the province's proof of vaccination document isn't a foolproof measure.
"Certainly there’s an element of good faith I guess that has to go into people coming into the venue,” he said.
The Oilers said they would try to keep people spaced out for Tuesday's game, adding they would monitor how things go and potentially adjust policy if needed.
"We have supported frontline workers and medical professionals in the province of Alberta throughout the pandemic and we definitely are listening to medical experts as we craft our policy," said Shipton.
"We have a system in place here in Alberta, under the Restrictions Exemption Program, that we're going to be following. We feel, at OEG, that there are things we can do to enhance the system."
As of Tuesday, Alberta had 1,100 patients in hospital with COVID-19, with 263 of those in ICU, according to the province.
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Dan Grummett