Alberta announces $100 gift card incentive to get holdouts vaccinated as cases surge

EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney, two months after declaring victory over COVID-19, is offering $100 to Albertans who aren't vaccinated to try to curb nation-leading cases of the illness that have again pushed the province's hospitals to the brink.

Kenney said 70 per cent of eligible Albertans are fully vaccinated, and 78 per cent have had one shot, but immunization rates are stalling and the unvaccinated are swamping hospital beds.

He defended the $100 payout — to those over 18 who get their first or second vaccine doses — against accusations it's unfair to those who already are fully vaccinated.

"I wish we didn't have to do this, but this is not a time for moral judgments. This is a time to get people vaccinated," Kenney said Friday in Calgary.

He noted past incentives, including three $1-million lotteries, have not adequately moved the vaccination needle.

"We have left no stone unturned and yet we have the lowest vaccination rate in Canada," Kenney said.

"I’m much more concerned about protecting our hospitals than I am about some abstract message that this ($100) sends."

The government is also bringing back a provincewide mask mandate for all indoor public spaces and workplaces, except in classrooms, where decisions are up to school boards.

Licensed bars, restaurants and pubs must stop alcohol sales by 10 p.m., and all businesses are being asked to rethink having staff return to work.

It's being recommended unvaccinated people limit close contacts to 10 people or less.

Alberta has been experienced an increase in cases averaging more than 1,000 a day for the past week — the highest in Canada.

The province reported Friday that there were 515 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 118 of them in intensive care. That's double the numbers from 11 days ago.

The fourth wave has been fuelled by the more contagious Delta variant. The result has been emergency room bed closures, patient transfers and cancelled elective surgeries.

Alberta Health Services announced another round of surgery cancellations Friday as intensive care units filled to 95 per cent of capacity.

"It is tight," said Dr. Verna Yiu, head of Alberta Health Services, the province's health-care provider.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, said: "It is clear we are at risk of exceeding our province's ICU capacity if we do not make changes."

Kenney's United Conservative government has declined to bring in a vaccine passport as is being done in Quebec, British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba to encourage vaccination. In those provinces, proof is required to enter bars, restaurants and sports events.

The premier has said there are concerns those rules violate health privacy, but noted some businesses and professional sports teams in the province will require fans to show proof of vaccination.

The Opposition NDP said a vaccine passport is needed and could be downloaded online or on smartphones. Leader Rachel Notley said Kenney needs to act on it now rather than get left behind.

"The premier has failed — again. He has brought Alberta to a place of imminent danger to our health-care system," Notley said in Lethbridge, Alta.

"Jason Kenney is choosing to pay the angry mobs who are literally protesting outside our hospitals blocking ambulances, while cutting the wages of the nurses who are working inside of them."

Kenney's government is seeking to reduce the wages of nurses in the current round of collective bargaining.

The province has not brought in new rules since lifting all but a handful of health measures July 1. Municipalities, universities, schools boards, sports teams and businesses have introduced their own rules on masking, testing and vaccinations.

This is the third time in four waves of the pandemic that Kenney’s government has been criticized for failing to act until numbers hit dangerous levels.

In May, doctors were briefed on how to triage patients as the third wave pushed hospitals to the breaking point before Kenney brought in renewed health restrictions.

Kenney declared victory over the virus on June 18 and announced almost all health restrictions would be lifted, the first province to do so. He cited the fact that 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least one vaccine dose.

On Friday, the premier was asked if he regrets declaring COVID-19 was manageable.

"We made a decision based on the evidence in front of us," said Kenney, who added that he relied on Hinshaw's advice.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said Kenney's $100 plan appears driven by an ideological reluctance to impose any health restrictions — a move that could result in more strife.

"I don't think it’s going to play out well," said Bratt of Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"Not only are you bribing the unvaccinated, who are the cause of the problem, you are punishing everybody else.

"We're already seeing a clash between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in society. This is going to accentuate it even more."

The effects of the new health orders were immediate.

Calgary-based musician Jesse Peters said he got vaccinated as soon as possible, but has now been told a number of his bookings have been cancelled due to the 10 p.m. alcohol cutoff.

"You don't want to hate people and you don't want to demonize people, but at the same time I think ... 'Could you please, for the love of God, just do this bare minimum thing so that we can feed our families and get back to work?'" said Peters.

In Edmonton, musician Mike Grier said: "To, again, be kind of pandering to the lowest common denominator is a little ridiculous, especially when we've seen in other jurisdictions that vaccine passports really drive vaccination rates.

"Alberta," he said, "is always choosing to do the most ridiculous thing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 3, 2021.

— With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton

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