Alberta doctors, chambers of commerce push for COVID-19 vaccine passport

WATCH (Sept. 10): Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro was grilled again by reporters Friday over the province’s hesitation to adopt COVID-19 vaccine passports.

In an open letter to Premier Jason Kenney, 65 infectious diseases physicians from across Alberta call for immediate province-wide restrictions of access to indoor non-essential businesses and services for people who are not immunized against COVID-19.

The letter, dated Sept. 13, is addressed to the premier, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

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“We, Alberta’s infectious diseases physicians, are writing to convey our gravest concerns about the safety of the province’s current COVID-19 approach, and to request immediate province-wide restricted access for unimmunized individuals to public indoor spaces for the purpose of accessing non-essential services,” the letter reads.

“This measure can immediately decrease new infections, thereby alleviating pressure on hospitals, while avoiding widespread lockdowns, now and in the future.

“Hospitals and ICUs across the province are under enormous strain and have reached a point where it is unclear if, or for how much longer, we can provide safe care for Albertans. The number of COVID-19 patients needing ICU currently exceeds the total number of fully staffed ICU beds.

“While surge capacity allows for additional beds, the human resources cannot be similarly scaled up,” the letter continues.

The group of doctors says, at the current rate, the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to ICU will double every two weeks. The group points out that more than 90 per cent of Alberta patients in ICU with COVID-19 are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated.

“Our healthcare system is truly on the precipice of collapse,” the doctors’ letter reads.

They say they don’t believe the current measures “go nearly far enough to interrupt transmission.” They also say the health-care system is so overwhelmed that the lack of stronger measures “will result in devastating consequences, further compromising our ability to care for Albertans with any medical conditions.”

The letter goes on to say: “We are calling for urgent, decisive action to break chains of COVID-19 transmission.

“To prevent broad restrictions like those required in earlier waves, we are calling for immediate implementation of certificates of immunity that individuals must provide to enter any indoor public space for the purpose of accessing a non-essential service.

“This would ensure the safety of individuals who chose not to be vaccinated, enable businesses to continue to operate safely, and provide a strong incentive for vaccination.”

The doctors write the vaccination certificate and access rules “must be mandated by the provincial government, as is being done in nearly all other Canadian jurisdictions.”

The letter states that if the province cannot implement this kind of vaccine passport system, Alberta should bring back familiar restrictions immediately, like limiting the size of indoor gatherings, closing highest-risk businesses (indoor dining and bars) with government support for businesses, and work-from-home rules.

“We, the undersigned, firmly believe that only strong and decisive leadership through the above actions can avert an imminent public health crisis in our province,” the letter concludes.

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On Monday, Alberta Health Services announced up to 70 per cent of elective surgeries and outpatient procedures in the Edmonton zone were being postponed in an effort to create “sufficient ICU and inpatient capacity” to manage COVID-19 activity. AHS said only priority cancer, urgent and emergent surgeries would be performed.

Last week, AHS postponed “all scheduled elective surgeries and many outpatient procedures for the remainder of (the) week” at Calgary hospitals.

The reductions allow AHS to free up space for patients requiring inpatient care and critical care supports, while also allowing front-line staff to be deployed to the areas of greatest need.

Alberta’s former chief medical officer of health, Dr. James Talbot, told Global News on Monday that Alberta’s health system is “on the verge of collapse,” and that either triage protocols will have to be invoked or patients will need to be sent to ICUs outside the province.

In the absence of stronger public health measures from the province, Talbot says Albertans need to step up.

“People can continue to do the things that they did to reduce rates in the past — in terms of masking and not going inside, and limiting contact — but we also need a full court press on a vaccine passport.

“If the government won’t do it, then businesses and (local) governments can do it on their own, saying the only people allowed inside are the ones who can show proof of immunization.

“That protects their staff, it protects their clients, it protects their bottom line and it protects those people who now can’t come in who are unvaccinated (and) who might get infected,” he said.

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“We need individuals who are fully vaccinated to only go to places that have instituted a vaccine passport.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you need to go in and get at least a single dose now. Because if you wait, and COVID continues to infect people at the rate that it is, and you get infected and need the hospitals, the hospitals might not have any room for you,” Talbot said.

“Go get immunized now… It’s going to be too late in four weeks.”

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On Tuesday, the Alberta Medical Association called on the government of Alberta to re-institute more strict public health measures “given the sharp rise in case numbers and patients in hospital and ICU.”

In a series of messages on Twitter, the doctors’ group said: “the measures instituted on Sept. 3 are unlikely to have the kind of impact that is needed and we cannot afford to wait.

“Increasing vaccination rates is critical, but won’t prevent the course of this current wave fast enough.

“All options need to be on the table, including vaccine passports.”

Provincial officials have been asked repeatedly over the last several weeks why Alberta has no current plans to introduce a proof-of-vaccination program.

When asked for a response to the letter urging the immediate implementation of a vaccine passport system, a spokesperson for the minister of health pointed to Shandro’s comments on the issue from Sept. 9.

“It’s not an easy answer,” he said. “I think that’s why the largest employer in the province — AHS — has moved forward in showing that leadership and what other workplaces can do… The steps that they’ve taken for requiring vaccines, the same as they require already for the workforce to have vaccines for measles and other communicable diseases.”

He said the province was “moving forward” on developing a provincial QR code and printable card “to help facilitate how quickly Albertans can show their immunization status if they choose to do so to folks who wish to make the decision about patrons or employees who are in their businesses to be able to show that quick… immunization status.”

But, when it comes to bringing in a provincially mandated vaccine passport and limiting access unvaccinated people have to non-essential services and businesses, Shandro said the province made recommendations to unvaccinated Albertans to limit household contacts.

“A lot of the transmission for those who are unvaccinated is in indoor settings, and for those folks who are making the choice right now, unfortunately, to not be vaccinated, that they need to limit their contacts for indoor social settings to two families, maximum 10 people.

“We are making those recommendations because those folks are putting themselves at risk as well as their other family members.

“We are continuing to look at other ways in which we can continue to increase our vaccination rates in Alberta and other ways in which those who are unvaccinated are putting themselves at risk and a significant amount of them ending up in our acute care system and putting pressure on AHS.

“We’ll continue to look at that evidence and what options we have available to us,” Shandro said.

During a news conference on Friday in Rocky Mountain House, Shandro was questioned again about whether Alberta will have a system similar to the one in B.C., where residents have proof of vaccination on either an app or a scannable card, and along with it, province-wide restrictions will be in place preventing unvaccinated people from entering some settings, like non-essential businesses.

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Shandro said the government is prioritizing ensuring that businesses or workplaces that want to implement their own restrictions, can do so quickly through a secure QR code.

“When it comes to the question of whether it’s going to be government mandated, we have — as we’ve communicated before, premier said before — we are right now enabling those workplaces and businesses to be able to make those decisions,” he said.

“We are going to continue to look at the evidence on how that affects our vaccine uptake. If there is evidence… as we see the vaccine passports, as they are enabled in other provinces, I’m happy to look at that information.

“But at this time, we have made the decision for these decisions (to) be led by those workplaces and by those businesses.”

Some businesses are taking matters into their own hands — requiring customers provide proof of vaccination — in the absence of an Alberta-wide vaccine passport.

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“It was an easy decision to make, personally and morally,” said Darren McGeown, owner of Arcadia Brewing Co.

“Business wise, the difficult thing is the proof of vaccination for customers. Not everyone has their papers, some people have a little difficulty with the app, trying to get access to it.”

“If our government’s not going to, then it’s in our hands to do it.

He said he made the mandatory vaccine decision because of a “lack of leadership in our province.”

“Nothing seems to be being done. The decisions the previous week, the restrictions, seemed like a massive step backwards. We’ve already done this. It doesn’t work.”

On Sept. 3, Alberta announced a province-wide mask mandate for indoor settings and a change to liquor laws, with alcohol service being cut off at 10 p.m.

“This (vaccine passport) obviously seems like the way to be going, and businesses are hopefully going to be jumping on board. Fleisch was the first one to do it and then today we’ve seem campuses around the province jumping on board. It’s proven to work in other provinces and we need to do something,” McGeown said.

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McGeown said provincially-mandated vaccine requirement for people visiting businesses would have made things much easier.

“(But) that’s how it’s been the whole pandemic: it’s been on our shoulders to be doing this,” he said. “We already have enough challenges as it is.”

Despite the challenges, McGeown felt requiring customers be immunized was the right thing to do.

“The support that we’ve been getting from customers coming in, through emails, has been incredible.

“I’d just like to see other businesses step up,” he said. “We’re not going to get through this without these measures and steps.

“If this is the leadership role we have to take as business owners, we’ll carry that load, I guess,” McGeown said.

On Monday, the Calgary and Edmonton chambers of commerce added their members’ voices to the call for a provincially-mandated vaccine passport system.

Leger recently conducted a survey for the chambers on this topic and the majority of Alberta businesses supported the idea.

“When faced with further restrictions, businesses tell us vaccine certification will allow them to remain open with much more certainty than current measures provide,” said Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“In light of rising cases and stagnant vaccination rates, vaccine certification is a straightforward way to keep our economy open and stimulate vaccination rates.

“We’ve seen it work in other jurisdictions.”

The survey found 70 per cent of businesses and 74 per cent of citizens support a vaccine passport or vaccine certification.

The survey found 13 per cent of businesses and 12 per cent of the general population are opposed to vaccine certification.

Both chambers are pushing the province to adopt a government-led vaccine certification to protect Albertans’ health and well-being as part of “measures that support a safe, sustainable and permanent reopening.”

The top reason businesses said they supported a vaccine certification was to avoid widespread lockdowns (61 per cent), followed by ensuring the health and safety of workers (58 per cent) and strengthening consumer confidence (58 per cent.)

“Businesses and residents have clearly indicated the need for a standardized framework to ensure consumer confidence and protect worker safety,” said Jeffrey Sundquist, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

“As other jurisdictions move ahead with implementing vaccine certifications, we cannot be left behind and have local business risk losing their competitive edge when it comes to attracting workers, customers and investors.”

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“Despite overwhelming support for vaccine passports from business leaders in Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP still refuse to take the obvious step of implementing one, which would keep Albertans safe, keep businesses open, and protect jobs,” said Deron Bilous, NDP economic development critic.

“Instead of implementing a vaccine passport, Kenney has imposed new restrictions on businesses. These restrictions were put in place with very little notice and without any financial support for impacted businesses, further hurting economic growth and risking job losses.”

The Leger survey asked 1,000 citizens in Edmonton and Calgary and 71 members of the Edmonton and Calgary chambers, and was conducted between Aug. 19 and Sept. 1, 2021.

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