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Alberta expands availability of rapid tests; eases restrictions for holidays amid Omicron variant


Alberta is making rapid tests more readily available and has opened bookings for booster shots to those age 50 and up and all health-care workers, Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.

Indoor gathering limits are also being loosened for the holiday season, with the maximum number of people remaining at 10, but the two household limit has been removed. Anyone age 17 and under also doesn't count toward the limit.

Another change will see those who are unvaccinated allowed to attend and host indoor social gatherings.

"Until today Alberta was the only province to prohibit indoor socializing of unvaccinated individuals, which we have concluded is leading to widespread non-compliance," said Kenney. 

"And now with 90 per cent of adults having some level of protection, we believe it is no longer necessary."

Rapid test kits will also be made available, free of charge, at more than 700 Alberta Health Services sites and pharmacies across the province. You can pick up one, every two weeks, and you can also pick one up for someone else, as long as you have that person's health-care number.

Each kit contains five tests and the province has more than 500,000 available. They are intended to be used by those without COVID-19 symptoms, said Kenney.

"If you do have symptoms, people should immediately isolate and do a PCR test at an AHS assessment centre."

Rapid test kits are also being made available to K-6 schools placed on alert status, meaning at least two positive cases attended within the period of 14 days.

Vaccines arrived in Alberta one year ago this week, noted Kenney, and to date, 89.3 per cent of those eligible are now partially vaccinated (one dose) and 84.9 per cent are fully vaccinated (at least two doses).

Booster shots are available starting Wednesday to those age 50 and up, as long as at least six months have passed since the last shot.


NDP leader Rachel Notley issued a statement questioning the decision to loosen indoor gathering restrictions as spread of the Omicron variant increases.

"Today, Albertans may be feeling some whiplash. The premier says unvaccinated Albertans can host at-home gatherings with multiple households while at the same time the chief medical officer says there is a significant risk of a fifth wave that would once again collapse the health care system. This just doesn’t add up," she said.

"It’s hard to tell if the premier has some evidence that the measures announced will mitigate the risk or if his decisions are based on something other than data, maybe his own leadership review. Albertans are right to wonder if Jason Kenney is rolling the dice again.

"While we are pleased to see the government expand availability for booster shots and offer take-home rapid test kits, we reject the rationale behind the premier’s assertion that Alberta should loosen restrictions for the Christmas holidays for unvaccinated Albertans."

Doing that, said Notley, "sends the completely wrong message."

"Our health care system is still in crisis. The situation on the ground in our ICUs is urgent and highly pressurized. Tens of thousands of Albertans have already had their surgeries canceled or missed out on life-saving treatment or early-diagnosis because of the strain this pandemic has placed on our hospitals. We cannot risk this situation worsening," she said.

"It is clear Alberta may face some form of fifth wave from Omicron, so Albertans must be given both information and reasons to trust their provincial leadership. We call on the premier to release modeling like B.C. has done, and to establish an independent science advisory body who will help to ensure transparent evidenced based decision making.

"I ask all Albertans to follow the rules, keep your loved ones safe and please, enjoy your holidays."

The update was postponed Tuesday so Kenney could take part in an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other provincial leaders.

Trudeau convened an emergency meeting of the Council of Federation "to address Omicron and make sure we’re working together to keep you safe as we head into the holidays."

Some doctors in the province are also critical of the new regulation changes to restrictions around social gatherings. 

"Throwing the unvaccinated a bone and saying they can now interact indoors with the vaccinated I think is really dangerous,” said Dr. Joe Vipond, a Calgary emergency room physician. 

“Omicron has shown how incredibly fast it spread and this is a super dangerous situation."

The province announced on Tuesday 250 new cases of COVID-19, along with eight deaths.

There are now 4,016 active cases in Alberta with 366 patients in hospital, including 70 in ICU.

Alberta also added 20 Omicron cases on Tuesday, the highest one-day increase so far, raising the total to 50.

Some health experts say despite the early signs that suggest the Omicron variant causes a milder infection, people shouldn't take it lightly.

"Even if it was less severe, the sheer numbers of potentially infected people — because people who've been vaccinated and who have been infected — are more likely to get this variant would easily overwhelm the health care system again,' said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta. 

"I think that we would have significant regrets if we didn't take needed measures now and had another huge surge for example in January or February."

The most recent provincial state of emergency, which was put in place Sept. 15, has now ended.

With files from CTV Calgary's Austin Lee Top Stories

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