Alberta premier says no school mask rules as viral cases rise, jamming hospitals


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EDMONTON - Premier Danielle Smith says she won't mandate masks in schools as Alberta fights a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick and pushing hospital capacity to the brink.

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EDMONTON – Premier Danielle Smith says she won’t mandate masks in schools as Alberta fights a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick and pushing hospital capacity to the brink.

Smith says anyone who wants to wear a mask is free to do so, but her focus is on procuring more supplies of scarce medicine like children’s Tylenol and reducing long wait times in hospital emergency rooms.

“We’re not going to be mandating masks,” Smith told reporters in Sherwood Park on Monday.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from parents that they want a normal school environment for their kids and we’re going to let kids be kids.”

Ontario’s pediatric care system is under similar strain. Earlier Monday, its chief medical officer of health recommended people wear masks in all public settings and said he is considering making it mandatory in schools again.

Alberta schools are seeing spikes in absenteeism due to a wave of illnesses, including COVID-19, the flu and RSV, while the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary and the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton are dealing with a crush of patients, some seriously ill.

“In-patient units at both pediatric sites are at or over 100 per cent of their normal beds and we are adding staff to increase beyond their normal capacity as at any peak time,” Kerry Williamson, spokesman for Alberta Health Services, said in a statement.

“The (Alberta Children’s Hospital) emergency department has seen more than 300 visits a day recently, compared to about 180-220 prior to the recent surge in visits.”

Williamson said the hospitals are trying to reduce the number of patients by working to free up staff and resources in other units.

School officials estimate more than three quarters of Edmonton’s public schools have seen recent absenteeism rates above 10 per cent, enough to trigger an AHS investigation into an infectious disease outbreak. About 10 per cent or more of students in Calgary have been absent in recent days.

Smith has been critical of COVID-19 mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students.

She has also been sharply critical of how Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, and Alberta Health Services handled the COVID-19 pandemic, blaming it for bad advice, for forcing its workers to get COVID-19 vaccines and for failing Albertans when the health system came close to collapse during multiple waves of the pandemic.

Smith has promised to reorganize the entire governance structure of AHS by mid-January and said Monday that announcements will begin rolling out this week.

The premier has said she supports COVID-19 documents like the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been dismissed by Hinshaw and the World Health Organization as scientifically unsound.

The declaration urges protecting the old and frail but otherwise letting COVID-19 run free to build up herd immunity and keep society operating while preventing the longer-term consequences of isolation on people’s mental health. Sweden, Florida and South Dakota used this approach during COVID-19 at the expense of comparatively higher COVID-19 case and death rates.

Smith also announced earlier this month that her team of medical advisers was linking up with Dr. Paul Alexander and that she’s was “interested in hearing what (Alexander) has to say.”

Alexander advised former U.S. president Donald Trump, has pushed hard for herd immunity and accuses COVID-19 vaccines of being “bioweapons.”

Asked by reporters Monday why she wants to hear from Alexander or what role he would play, Smith declined to answer.

“I’ve not consulted him,” she said. “I have a doctors advisory committee that is talking to lots of doctors, consulting widely. They’ll be the ones who are advising me, and I’ll announce them in the coming days.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the United Conservative government needs to get a handle on the situation, better communicate the state of the outbreak, and make it clear who is calling the shots.

“Albertans are left somewhat bereft of knowing who is actually making these decisions on public health care,” said Shepherd.

“(The premier) has invited someone like Paul Alexander.

“Is he having any influence on the system? We don’t know.

“We need to get a clear picture from the premier, from our minister of health, (on) who is steering the ship.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary

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