CP, The Canadian Press
Dean Bennett
Published:September 7, 2021
-Calgary Herald
EDMONTON — Twelve Alberta mayors are calling for Premier Jason Kenney to bring in provincewide COVID-19 vaccine passport rules, while a member of his United Conservative caucus is telling him to back away from them entirely.
The plea comes as COVID-19 cases continue to mount in the province, with 4,903 new cases being recorded over four days of the Labour Day long weekend with a test positivity rate of nearly 12 per cent.

Seventeen more Albertans died from Friday to Monday, while hospitalizations increased from 515 late last week to 602 and ICU admissions jumped from 118 to 137.

The mayors in Edmonton and surrounding communities, in a public letter sent Tuesday, urged the government to bring in the passport.

They call it the best way to compel more people to get vaccinated, end the pandemic and fully reopen the economy.

“I think the general public is very, very, almost overwhelmingly in favour of a (vaccine) passport,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, one of the signatories to the letter, told reporters Tuesday.

“I think that a passport mechanism provides a much more strong and relevant incentive than $100 payments to people who have held out so far.”

Ontario, B.C., Quebec, and Manitoba are implementing such passports, allowing only vaccinated people to access non-essential services such as bars, restaurants and sporting events.

Kenney has said Alberta won’t bring in provincewide rules but noted that some businesses along with Alberta’s professional hockey and football teams are mandating vaccinations.

It’s imperative the province quickly heed those mayors and medical experts backing the adoption of a passport given hospitals are already overwhelmed, as evidenced by the postponement of numerous surgeries, an Edmonton infectious disease specialist said Tuesday.

“The measures the government put in place last week just won’t be sufficient — we need to step on the brakes and break this chain of transmission,” said Dr. Leyla Asadi.

“You’re not left with a lot of options . . . that vaccine passport has to be adopted immediately, and without that proof, you should not be engaging in any indoor public activities.”

The mayors, she said, should be commended for their stance “given the vacuum of leadership at the provincial level.”

The Edmonton-area mayors were responding to new measures announced by Kenney on Friday to curb a resurgence of nation-leading COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that are now threatening to overwhelm the health system. Patients are being transferred and non-elective surgeries are being cancelled across the province to deal with the influx that filled intensive care to 95 per cent capacity late last week.

Alberta Health Services said ICUs are now at 87 per cent capacity.

“AHS continues to do all it can to ensure we have enough ICU capacity to meet patient demand, including opening additional spaces and redeploying staff,” AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson said in a statement.

On Friday, Kenney announced $100 will be given to anyone who gets their first or second COVID vaccine from now until mid-October.

AHS said 5,268 people got a shot over the weekend, not including those who may have done so at pharmacies. That is a 13 per cent bump compared with the previous weekend.

Kenney also reintroduced the provincewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces and workplaces but with multiple exceptions, including gyms and churches.

School boards are also being left to decide their own plans on masking, resulting in a patchwork of rules across the province as students return to class this week.

There is also a 10 p.m. cut-off for alcohol sales at places such as restaurants and bars.

The mayors called for better leadership from Kenney’s government and consistency in the rules.

“Failure to extend masking requirements to schools and post-secondary institutions further perpetuates division between Albertans (and) creates more uncertainty for students, staff and faculty,” wrote the mayors.

On Tuesday, there was no indication councils or mayors of Calgary-area municipalities were making a similar request.

Kenney has said he has privacy concerns with a vaccine passport, but acknowledges it is valid in some areas. All Alberta health staff, for example, including doctors and nurses, will soon have to show proof of vaccination.

The province is also developing a machine-readable QR code that can be downloaded or placed on a smartphone to make it easy to prove vaccination status.

But UCP caucus member Peter Guthrie is publicly calling out the QR code plan, warning it could be the first step to a provincewide passport that would be unfair to those who choose not to get vaccinated.

“Such a move suggests that the government’s position on this (passport) practice is shifting,” Guthrie wrote in a public letter to his Airdrie-Cochrane constituents Tuesday.

Guthrie also called out Kenney for blaming the current crisis on the 20 per cent of eligible Albertans, those 12 and over, who have not received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“This type of communication from our leader feeds a narrative of anger and division which is unproductive in an already turbulent time,” wrote Guthrie, adding: “The $100 vaccine incentive has also created animosity within the constituency.”

Infectious disease specialist Asadi called Guthrie misguided about the passports, saying that although vaccines aren’t perfect, they make a considerable difference that should be recognized.

“Vaccines do reduce your chances of being infected so there’s a reduction of your chances of transmitting,” she said.

While she agrees the unvaccinated shouldn’t be stigmatized, their role in driving the pandemic, given their high rate of hospitalization, can’t be ignored, said Asadi.

Guthrie was not immediately available for comment.

The Opposition NDP also renewed its call for a vaccine passport. It held a news conference with two club owners who are now facing further disruption and loss of business due to the 10 p.m. alcohol curfew.

“Albertans deserve answers on why Jason Kenney and the UCP are failing to take obvious, common-sense actions such as introducing vaccine passports,” said the party’s health care critic David Shepherd.

The owner of Edmonton’s Evolution Wonderlounge said something has to be done given the rising threat to his bottom line posed by COVID-19.

“The rug got pulled out from underneath us at a time when we were just finding our footing again,” said Rob Browatzke.

“This weekend we saw a 60 per cent drop in revenue. With that math, at a time when federal subsidies are ending and further provincial support is not coming, we will be closed by Halloween.”