Alberta expands availability of rapid tests and booster shots, makes changes to gathering rules

More than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be available at pharmacies starting Friday, Premier Jason Kenney announced Wednesday as he unveiled new measures in the province’s fight against the Omicron variant that causes COVID-19.

“Researchers are working tirelessly to better understand Omicron but there are still many unknowns … what is clear is how quickly it can spread,” Kenney told a news conference.

“We don’t need to look outside our country to see the speed that happens with this highly transmissible variant. Because of its extraordinarily high rate of transmission, it might still represent a risk to our health-care system.”

Effective immediately, up to 700,000 more Albertans — everyone aged 50 and older, and all health-care workers — will be able to book third doses of mRNA vaccines, as long as they had their second doses six months ago or longer.

Unvaccinated individuals are now permitted to attend private indoor gatherings. Under the previous rule, people who were unvaccinated could not attend any private indoor gatherings.

Indoor social gatherings will remain limited to 10 people, but effectively immediately are no longer limited to two households.

“What we are doing today means Alberta continues to have the most strict restrictions on indoor socializing in Canada,” Kenney said. “Most provinces have limits of about 20, 25 people. We have a limit of 10 — 10 adults.

“This still keeps us with the most stringent rules but at the same time we have to be mindful, after 21 months of this, of the willingness of the public to actually comply with the rules.

“Rules on paper that are not observed by the public are meaningless, pointless and just undermine confidence in the public health measures. So the reality is that families are going to be gathering for Christmas. We want people to be mindful of and to follow these rules. We feel like this is a more realistic approach.”

State of public health emergency expires

The temporary state of public health emergency expired as of Tuesday, but all other current public health measures remain in effect, including mandatory masking in indoor public places.

Outdoor social gathering capacity remains at 20 people, regardless of vaccination status. Physical distancing between households is required.

“We can’t protect ourselves from this virus or its variants with just one or two tactics,” Kenney said.

“We have to use every possible tool at our disposal to limit spread of the virus. That includes a robust testing program to identify cases as early as possible to identify potential spread.”

Kenney said making testing kits more widely available will help provide an extra layer of defence against the virus, and bring “peace of mind” to families trying to limit transmission.

“This is especially welcome at this time of year as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season and often travelling, for example, from cities to hometowns,” he said.

“Expanding rapid testing adds to our current public health measures and our ongoing work to ensure Albertans are protected by the vaccine but it does not replace either of these.”

Kenney was joined by Health Minister Jason Copping and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

The event was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed to accommodate a meeting with Kenney, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other provincial premiers.

Multiple sources told CBC News and Radio-Canada that stronger travel measures — and the need to accelerate the rollout of third dose vaccinations — were discussed during the Tuesday evening call. 

Today, sources say the federal government is expected to renew an advisory against non-essential international travel.

If implemented, stricter international travel rules would reverse months of progress to reopen Canada’s borders after the country effectively shut down to non-essential travellers during the early stages of the pandemic.

All Albertans will soon be able to access free take-home COVID-19 rapid antigen testing kits from participating pharmacies in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary.

Albertans in other communities can access testing kits through Alberta Health Services sites. Pharmacies in Edmonton confirm pre-orders for the testing kits have already been made at select sites. 

Kenney had also promised to ease public health restrictions over the holidays while saying a decision on those regulatory changes must be made soon. 

During an update last week, Kenney promised a “modest, common-sense relaxation” of the rules so more Albertans could gather together for the holidays.

The arrival of Omicron, which appears highly contagious and capable of infecting vaccinated people more than previous variants, has prompted renewed concern about the spread of COVID-19. 

Cases of the variant continue to rise in Alberta. On Tuesday, the provincial total increased from 30 to 50. 

Alberta Health said Tuesday evening that two of the cases are of unknown origin and are suspected to be from community transmission. Most of the cases, 27, are in the Calgary zone.

Alberta health officials also reported 250 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and eight new deaths from the illness.The province’s COVID-19 related death total now stands at 3,283.

There are now 4,016 active cases across the province. There are 366 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 70 in intensive care.

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