Alberta will allow unvaccinated adults to attend indoor private holiday gatherings despite the threat posed by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday.
The change is effective immediately, Kenney said as he unveiled new measures in the province’s fight against COVID-19, including expanded availability of booster shots and rapid antigen testing kits.
Under previous rules, unvaccinated individuals were not permitted to attend any private indoor gatherings because of the risk of transmitting the virus.
Alberta has also lifted a restriction limiting indoor private gatherings to a maximum of 10 adults from two households. The limit of 10 adults remains, but there is no longer any restriction on how many households they can be from. There are no limits on those under 18.
Kenney defended the relaxation of rules around gatherings at the same time he warned Albertans about the “extraordinarily high rate of transmission” seen with Omicron. As of Tuesday, 50 cases of Omicron had been identified in the province.
“Emerging real-world evidence suggests that Omicron is more infectious and is causing more breakthrough infections, both for those who have antibodies from prior infection as well as those who have received two doses of vaccine,” Kenney said.
But he said Alberta has been an “outlier” among provinces in preventing unvaccinated people from attending indoor private gatherings.
Kenney stressed a need to “balance out people’s mental and emotional health,” particularly as Alberta heads into a second straight Christmas during the pandemic.
“If there’s one small thing we can do that takes away another reason for division with families arguing about having the unvaccinated aunt over for Christmas dinner, for example — if we can instead put that decision back to individual families, how they can be COVID-careful.
“They can use rapid testing, for example, if they’re having family gatherings.”
Kenney said most provinces are allowing larger indoor private gatherings, while Alberta is sticking to 10 adults.
“This still keeps us with the most stringent rules but at the same time we have to be mindful, after 21 months of this, of the willingness of the public to actually comply with the rules,” he said.
“Rules on paper that are not observed by the public are meaningless, pointless and just undermine confidence in the public health measures.
“So the reality is that families are going to be gathering for Christmas. We want people to be mindful of and to follow these rules. We feel like this is a more realistic approach.”
Hinshaw stresses need for caution
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said the recent emergence of Omicron shows the need to be “extremely cautious” as health experts learn more about the new variant.
“We know it is more transmissible, we know it causes more breakthrough infections in those who have previously been infected and in those who have two doses of vaccine,” Hinshaw said.
“Early evidence indicates that it may be less likely to cause severe outcomes than previous variants but with a larger number of people getting infected much more quickly, the overall impact on ICUs is still rising in other parts of the world where Omicron is spreading fast.”
Alberta Health said Tuesday evening that two of the 50 Omicron cases in the province are of unknown origin and are suspected to be from community transmission. Most of the cases, 27, are in the Calgary zone.
Rapid antigen tests
More than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be available at pharmacies starting Friday, Kenney said. Making testing kits more widely available will help provide an extra layer of defence against the virus, and bring “peace of mind” to families trying to limit transmission, he said.
“This is especially welcome at this time of year as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season and often travelling, for example, from cities to hometowns,” he said.
“Expanding rapid testing adds to our current public health measures and our ongoing work to ensure Albertans are protected by the vaccine but it does not replace either of these.”
Effective immediately, up to 700,000 more Albertans — everyone aged 50 and older, and all health-care workers — will be able to book third doses of mRNA vaccines, as long as they had their second doses six months ago or longer.
Other health measures still in effect
The temporary state of public health emergency expired as of Tuesday, but all other current public health measures remain in effect, including mandatory masking in indoor public places.
Outdoor social gathering capacity remains at 20 people, regardless of vaccination status. Physical distancing between households is required.
“We can’t protect ourselves from this virus or its variants with just one or two tactics,” Kenney said.
“We have to use every possible tool at our disposal to limit spread of the virus. That includes a robust testing program to identify cases as early as possible to identify potential spread.”
Stronger travel measures expected
Wednesday’s news conference was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed to accommodate a meeting with Kenney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other provincial premiers.
Multiple sources told CBC News and Radio-Canada that stronger travel measures — and the need to accelerate the rollout of third dose vaccinations — were discussed during the Tuesday evening call.
Sources say the federal government is expected to renew an advisory against non-essential international travel.
If implemented, stricter international travel rules would reverse months of progress to reopen Canada’s borders after the country effectively shut down to non-essential travellers during the early stages of the pandemic.
Alberta health officials also reported 250 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and eight new deaths from the illness.The province’s COVID-19 related death total now stands at 3,283.
There are now 4,016 active cases across the province. There are 366 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 70 in intensive care.