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Alberta acted like the pandemic was over. Now it's a cautionary tale for Canada –



This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.

The COVID-19 situation in Alberta has gone from bad to worse — providing a cautionary tale for the rest of Canada on how a string of bad policy decisions, low vaccination rates and a failure to act quickly are a recipe for disaster.  

Unlike Ontario, which has triple the population but is faring much better in the fourth wave after keeping many public health restrictions in place, Alberta resisted vaccine passports, lifted mask mandates and even planned to abandon test, trace and isolate protocols before backtracking as cases rose.

To put it bluntly, Premier Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever” was a failure.

“The end of this terrible time is just two weeks away,” Kenney infamously said on June 18. “We finally have the upper hand on this virus and can safely open up our province.”

Fast forward to today and Alberta has the highest rate of infections in the country, at close to four times the national average, and Albertans are dying of COVID-19 at close to three times the rate of anywhere else in Canada — rivalled only by Saskatchewan.

While there’s no redo button on Alberta’s delta-fueled fourth wave, there are lessons — especially for other Prairie provinces that experts fear may not be far behind.

Staff members work at an ICU in an Alberta hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Albertans are dying of COVID-19 at close to three times the rate of anywhere else in Canada. (Alberta Health Services)

Alberta’s ‘grave misstep’ led to devastating 4th wave

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, a physician and assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said the Alberta government “completely abdicated its responsibility” to ensure the health and wellbeing of citizens in the fourth wave. 

“Alberta was reckless in dropping all restrictions and declaring the pandemic over. Jason Kenney infamously declared that we were in the post-pandemic era, that COVID was no longer a risk and basically threw caution to the wind — that was a grave misstep,” he said.

“But what made things much, much worse is the inability to respond to the data that demonstrated a rising number of cases.”

Kenney finally accepted medical aid from the federal government and Newfoundland and Labrador Thursday, after rejecting calls for stricter measures days prior, and the Canadian Armed Forces and the Red Cross are sending medical staff to ease the burden on hospitals. 

“Our healthcare system has completely collapsed,” said Schwartz. “It’s not just that we’re on the verge of collapse, I think that’s misleading at this point — we’ve completely collapsed.” 

Schwartz says Alberta hospitals are currently unable to offer life-saving surgery or safe emergency care to those that desperately need it and some are consistently running at more than 100 per cent ICU capacity, making for a “completely dysfunctional healthcare system.” 

“People might think that they’re vaccinated, and so they don’t need to worry about this. But the fact is that if we can’t provide safe ICU care, period, then everybody is at risk,” he said. 

“Every time people get on a tractor, or get in a car, and go on the highway — there’s always been risk associated with that — but now there’s no safety net.” 

Kenney announced Alberta’s first government-imposed vaccine mandate Thursday, ordering all public servants be vaccinated by Nov. 30. But there is an option for regular testing instead, and the province stopped short of instituting further public health restrictions.

Schwartz says the next few weeks could be some of the hardest Alberta has faced in the pandemic — as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise while the healthcare system buckles under the pressure of an unrelenting surge in COVID-19 patients. 

“As a health-care worker it’s completely demoralizing and we feel like we’re just completely left to our own devices,” he said. “We’re just completely abandoned.” 

A staff member works in an Alberta hospital ICU during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, there were 1,100 people being treated for COVID in hospital — 263 of whom were in intensive care beds. (AHS)

Saskatchewan may be ‘weeks away from peaking’

The situation is becoming similarly dire in nearby Saskatchewan, and infectious diseases experts there say the rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are largely being fuelled by unvaccinated pockets throughout the Prairies. 

“The short answer here is that we are almost assuredly in Saskatchewan on the same really, really bad, steep upward trajectory that Alberta is on,” said Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious diseases physician at Regina General Hospital and associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Worst case scenario: I think we’re still weeks away from peaking, which would pretty much guarantee an unsustainable need for an ICU triage type of environment — very, very similar to what Alberta is dealing with right now.” 

Wong says, among the Prairie provinces, Manitoba has a key difference: it created a vaccine certificate in June, months before other provinces, which pushed its vaccination rate higher

Alberta resisted implementing a vaccine passport system until late last month, but instead attempted to incentivize vaccination by offering unvaccinated residents $100 and entry into a $1-million draw to get the shot. Both had little impact on vaccine uptake

“It didn’t increase vaccination, but it also cost us time when there could have been fewer new cases as a result of unvaccinated individuals frequenting indoor public spaces and infecting other people,” said Schwartz.

Saskatchewan only unveiled a vaccine passport this week, but also allowed for a negative test for entry into non-essential businesses, at the same time Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said the province is heading toward a “fall and winter of misery.”

Manitoba at risk from unvaccinated pockets

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba and Canada Research Chair of emerging viruses, says that while Manitoba has a slightly higher vaccine uptake than other provinces — there are stark differences among its populations in urban and rural settings that threaten to worsen their fourth wave. 

“We have a very very disparate uptake of vaccines across the south compared to most of the rest of the province,” he said. “In Manitoba, we have three quarters of our population in one city … and Winnipeg vaccination rates got high pretty quick.”

But Kindrachuk says the threat of a further rise in COVID-19 levels lies with unvaccinated populations in the southern regions of Manitoba that are driving transmission numbers to record highs — with one town in particular having a vaccination rate of just 24 per cent.  

“We watched Alberta, we watched Saskatchewan, we’re in a better place … but what happens if it starts to really roll through the south?” he said. “So the message for everybody is that the pandemic is not over.” 

Manitoba is bringing in new rules for unvaccinated people starting Tuesday in an effort to stave off a rise in cases and additional pressure on the healthcare system, including restrictions on indoor gatherings and capacity limits for weddings and places of worship. 

Experts say the next few weeks could be some of the hardest Alberta has faced in the pandemic, with ICUs stretched beyond even typical surge capacity. (AHS)

Wong says the messaging from policymakers and public health officials in the Prairies throughout the pandemic has been one of “individual responsibility” when it comes to following guidelines, getting tested or getting vaccinated. 

“Now the narrative is very much pushing the societal blame and anger and frustration away from, frankly, policymakers and toward people who are unvaccinated,” Wong said. In his view, the “shifting of blame” may have further increased vaccine hesitancy.  

“Even when the whole healthcare system is literally collapsing you’re just not going to get any kind of buy-in at a societal level anymore to actually care.”

Unlike Manitoba, Wong says Saskatchewan and Alberta will likely pay a “heavy human price” that will be “painful” in the weeks ahead, which he sees as unavoidable even if the government were to make the unlikely move of imposing another lockdown, or if vaccination rates climb. 

WATCH | Alberta, Sask. healthcare systems ‘broken’ by 4th wave surge, doctors say:

Health-care systems in Alberta, Saskatchewan ‘broken’ by COVID surge, doctors say

5 days ago

Dr. Aisha Mirza, an ER physician in Edmonton, and Dr. Hassan Masri, an ICU and critical care physician in Saskatoon, share how the provinces’ hospitals and medical professionals are struggling amid a fourth wave of COVID-19. 16:41

“This is not a pandemic of the unvaccinated, this affects absolutely everybody — it’s everybody whose surgeries are cancelled, and who won’t have access to urgent surgeries if they get into an accident, or if their appendix bursts or if they have an aneurysm,” Schwartz said.

“And whether there is ever the sort of political reckoning that is required in order to actually change course, to prevent these lives from being lost — I’m starting to lose hope.”

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China condemns U.S., Canada for sending warships through Taiwan Strait



The  Chinese military on Sunday condemned the United States and Canada for each sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait last week, saying they were threatening peace and stability in the region.

China claims democratically-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, and has mounted repeated air force missions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the past year, provoking anger in Taipei.

China sent around 150 aircraft into the zone over a four-day period beginning on Oct. 1 in a further heightening of tension between Beijing and Taipei that has sparked concern internationally.

The U.S. military said the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey sailed through the narrow waterway that separates Taiwan from its giant neighbour China along with the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg on Thursday and Friday.

“Dewey’s and Winnipeg’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the commitment of the United States and our allies and partners to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it added.

China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command said its forces monitored the ships and “stood guard” throughout their passage.

“The United States and Canada colluded to provoke and stir up trouble… seriously jeopardising peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” it said.

“Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. Theatre forces always maintain a high level of alert and resolutely counter all threats and provocations.”

U.S. Navy Ships have been transiting the strait roughly monthly, to the anger of Beijing, which has accused Washington of stoking regional tensions. U.S. allies occasionally also send ships through the strait, including Britain month.

While tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen, there has been no shooting and Chinese aircraft have not entered Taiwanese air space, concentrating their activity in the southwestern part of the ADIZ.

While including Taiwanese territorial air space, the ADIZ encompasses a broader area that Taiwan monitors and patrols that acts to give it more time to respond to any threats.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said on Sunday that three Chinese aircraft – two J-16 fighters and an anti-submarine aircraft – flew into the ADIZ again.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Pravin Char and John

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No end in sight to volcanic eruption on Spain’s La Palma – Canaries president



There’s no immediate end in sight to the  volcanic eruption that has caused chaos on the Spanish isle of La Palma since it began about a month ago, the president of the Canary Islands said on Sunday.

There were 42 seismic movements on the island on Sunday, the largest of which measured 4.3, according to the Spanish National Geographical Institute.

“There are no signs that an end of the eruption is imminent even though this is the greatest desire of everyone,” President Angel Víctor Torres said at a Socialist party conference in Valencia, citing the view of scientists.

Streams of lava have laid waste to more than 742 hectares (1833 acres) of land and destroyed almost 2,000 buildings on La Palma since the volcano started erupting on Sept. 19.

About 7,000 people have been evacuated from their homes on the island, which has about 83,000 inhabitants and forms part of the Canary Islands archipelago off northwestern Africa.

Airline Binter said it had cancelled all its flights to La Palma on Sunday because of ash from the volcano.

“Due to the current situation of the ash cloud, operations with La Palma will continue to be paralyzed throughout today. We continue to evaluate the situation,” the airline tweeted.

Almost half – 22 out of 38 – of all flights to the island on Sunday have been cancelled, state airport operator Aena said, but the airport there remains open.

(Reporting by Graham Keeley; Editing by Pravin Char)

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Son of ex-Somali political aide held over UK lawmaker stabbing



Ali Harbi Ali, the son of an ex-media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia, has been arrested by British police under  anti-terrorism laws following the killing of lawmaker David Amess, a source close to the investigation and British media said.

Amess, 69, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, was knifed repeatedly as he met constituency voters in a church on Friday in Leigh-on-Sea, east of London.

The killing took place five years after the murder of Jo Cox, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, and has prompted a review of politicians’ security.

Police said they had arrested a 25-year-old British man at the scene on suspicion of murder and have said it is believed he acted alone. They have not named the suspect but used additional powers under anti-terrorism laws to detain him until Oct. 22.

A British source close to the investigation named Ali Harbi Ali, a British citizen, as the detained suspect.

Harbi Ali Kullane, the father of Ali Harbi Ali, told The Sunday Times that his son had been arrested in connection with the murder.

“At this particular moment we are going through (an)unprecedented and horrific situation,” Harbi Ali Kullane, a former adviser to Hassan Ali Khaire, a former Somali prime minister, told Reuters in an email when asked about this.

“Due to the ongoing early investigation I am obliged and commanded not to talk about it,” said Harbi Ali Kullane, who is a former director of the Somali government’s media and communication department.

British police were on Sunday searching an address in north London linked to Ali Harbi Ali, Reuters reporters said.

Interior Minister Priti Patel said on Sunday Britain is considering a number of options to boost the security of lawmakers.

(Reporting by Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi and Guy Faulconbridge in LondonAdditional reporting by Costas PitasEditing by Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry)

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