State of emergency in Fort McMurray, Alta. as COVID-19 cases surge
TORONTO -- The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), which includes the oilsands hub of Fort McMurray, has declared a local state of emergency as coronavirus cases surge across northern Alberta.
The municipality declared the state of emergency at a special meeting on Sunday evening, which gives the local council more powers to address the pandemic.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that the emergency order "really signals how serious the situation is" in the area.
"We really need to get a big change in this region because it's totally out of hand... it's just headed in the wrong direction and has been for some period," Scott said.
According to data collected by CTVNews.ca, Alberta has the highest rate of active cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with the RMWB showing the highest rate of active infections in the province, as per provincial case data.
The surge in new cases has prompted local leaders in the Wood Buffalo municipality to ask the federal and provincial governments for "accelerated vaccine distribution" to help stem the rise in infections.
The municipality of 83,000 has more than 1,100 active coronavirus cases as of Monday. All but a handful of them are directly in Fort McMurray.
"As our municipality has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per-capita, the vaccine should be fast-tracked," Wood Buffalo councillor Jane Stroud told CTV News Edmonton.
According to provincial data, RMWB has a case rate of 1,320 per 100,000. Comparatively, Edmonton and Calgary count about 385 and 489 cases per 100,000 people.
Scott says the rise in cases is putting hospitals in the region under pressure, as ICUs reached capacity over the weekend.
"We have an arrangement… so that when we do reach capacity, some of our patients are shipped down to Edmonton, but we want to be able to look after our patients in our region," Scott said.
After sending military aid to help Ontario in its battle against a third wave of infections, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is willing to also help Alberta.
"For Albertans too, we're standing ready," Trudeau said on Tuesday.
"Our government has reached out to Alberta on what support they may need to keep people safe and get the situation back under control," he added.
While Scott has spoken with federal officials about the situation in the region and will meet with Alberta's health minister and top doctor on Tuesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the issue isn't a lack of vaccines.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Kenney said the province will try to provide additional vaccines to the RMWB, "to the extent that [it] can."
Despite this, Kenney noted that there has been a "significant amount" of unused vaccine supply every day in the region, noting that vaccine uptake has been lower in and around Fort McMurray.
"The problem does not appear to be a supply problem. The problem appears to be, when it comes to vaccines up there, it’s matching up the people who are eligible with the doses that are already in the region," Kenney said.
About 14 per cent of Fort McMurray citizens and 17 per cent of Wood Buffalo residents outside the city have had at least one COVID-19 shot, according to Kenney. He said roughly 25 per cent of people across Alberta have received at least one dose.
Kenney pointed to vaccine hesitancy in the surrounding Indigenous communities as the culprit of the unused doses. However, Scott disagrees.
"The Indigenous people are the ones who are calling for greater action in this region... and I have seen no hesitancy in the Indigenous community, I've seen quite the opposite," Scott said.
Scott said the province needs to adjust vaccine eligibility so more people in Wood Buffalo can get a jab. He noted that the RMWB has a young demographic and too few people are eligible for the shots.
"Our average age in this region -- we are a young population -- is 32.7. So we need to open up the vaccines to a younger age group," Scott said.
"Plus, you know, the vaccine clinic here is open limited hours. There should be an opportunity, we have so many shift workers in this region. Let's change the hours to match when people are available," he added.
Current vaccine eligibility in Alberta allows all residents aged 40 and older access to the AstraZeneca shot, those over 65 can get either Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech doses, and Indigenous residents over age 50 are eligible for any of the three vaccines.
Albertans with underlying health conditions and most health-care workers are also eligible, as well as those who live or work in high-risk settings including correctional facilities, shelters, or meat-processing facilities.
CANADA'S ENERGY ENGINE IS ALBERTA'S HOT SPOT
Infectious disease expert Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that, much like the situation in other provinces, essential workplaces are driving Fort McMurray’s rise in cases.
"You're dealing with, for lack of a better word, a different type of essential workers," Sharkawy said.
Local health officials report work camps in the oil sands, which house thousands of labourers, currently have hundreds of active COVID-19 cases.
"We're looking at the work camps in the oilpatch … where we're obviously seeing the highest rates of infectivity. Clearly there are issues with difficulty with respect to distancing," Sharkawy said.
He added that the situation could become "quite dire" if vaccine hesitancy in the region isn’t addressed and vaccinations aren’t increased.
"Absolutely all resources need to be directed toward a disproportionate rollout of vaccine[s] to that community," Sharkawy said.
In a statement released on Monday, the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA) said it has been working with Alberta Health Services and RMWB to reduce COVID-19 spread by putting in additional screening measures, providing isolation space and creating a social media campaign to address vaccine literacy.
"Since the start of the pandemic, oilsands operators have had strict protocols in place and sites are limited to critical and essential staff only," the statement read.
In the statement, the OSCA said workers are removed immediately after testing positive and moved to isolation camps.
The OSCA said it is currently in talks with the municipality to find out what more can be done amid the local state of emergency.
Scott said the provincial government needs to consult with the OSCA about opening vaccine clinics at work camps.
"They deliver the flu shot in this region, so they have a tremendous opportunity to deliver the vaccine shots," he said.
In an effort to combat the surge of infections, Wood Buffalo has cancelled all non-urgent procedures and elective surgeries, while schools in Fort McMurray have been shuttered for in-person learning.
However, the province has not introduced any new public health measures in three weeks, during which Alberta has reported over 1,000 new infections every day.
Currently, Alberta does not allow indoor social gatherings, and outdoor gatherings are capped at 10 people. Retail stores are limited to 15 per cent capacity, while restaurants and bars are open for outdoor patio dining, takeout, curbside pickup and delivery. Individuals must be from the same household in order to shop and dine together.
Despite calls from the opposition for stronger measures, Kenney said on Monday that the rising case rates stem not from inadequate rules, but from too many ignoring existing strictures.
“More rules don't mean more compliance,” he said.
With files from The Canadian Press