‘We support choice’: Alberta premier rejects nurses union demand for mask mandate

Danielle Smith will not be imposing a mask mandate in indoor public spaces over the holidays, despite a call from the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) to do so.

The demand came shortly after Alberta Health Services (AHS) announced an “emergency provision” at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton due to a “surge” of kids sick with respiratory viruses.

“I always appreciate the input of our frontline workers, but we do support choice,” Smith said Wednesday during an announcement about EMS response times.

The premier acknowledged a “surge in patients” in the province, but said Alberta is sticking with its plan of recommending, but not requiring, masks.

“We’ve been very clear. Anyone who feels comfortable wearing a mask should feel free to do so,” Smith said.

The intensive care unit at the Stollery was at 100 per cent capacity Tuesday, a surge officials attributed to influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

AHS is redeploying staff to help at the Stollery and its medical director said mandatory overtime, vacation cancellations and short-notice shift changes were all possible as they “brace” for more patients.

‘A POLITICAL INCONVENIENCE’

The president of UNA called the situation a “crisis” and accused the UCP of playing politics instead of protecting kids.

“It is imperative that our government cease treating this situation as if it were a political inconvenience and address it immediately as the public health crisis that it is,” president Heather Smith wrote in a press release.

“The simplest and most effective policy change that could be implemented immediately would be an indoor mask mandate to reduce the spread of influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.”

The NDP’s health critic accused Smith and the UCP of ignoring health professionals.

“What we see is a government that’s putting its thumb on the scale, making political decisions and choosing to ignore science in favour of its own ideology,” David Shepherd said.

The Edmonton-City Centre MLA didn’t directly answer whether or not the NDP would bring in a mask mandate, and instead repeated the party’s stance that an independent panel of health experts should be created to make those calls.

“An Alberta NDP government, we would follow the advice of public health experts,” Shepherd told CTV News Edmonton.

The UNA also called on Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Mark Joffe to make a “public appearance and a statement on the gravity of the situation.”

‘WE SHOULD EVERYTHING WE CAN TO STOP THE SPREAD’

Smith said Dr. Joffe’s recommendations have been clear in communications through social media.

“Stay home if you’re sick. Make sure you’re washing your hands. And if you want to make the choice of a mask or a vaccination, you should do that. So I think that parents have been very responsible in responding to that message,” Smith said.

“I think school ends tomorrow as well. So I think at least we’ve got a couple of weeks period, as we get through the Christmas season, where the kids are not going to be in a congregate setting in a classroom.”

A developmental biologist and researcher based in Calgary agreed with Stollery officials that the number of sick kids is likely to rise through the winter.

“It’s not over yet, definitely, and it might get worse. We are already over capacity. So we should do everything we can to stop the spread of viruses and bacteria,” Dr. Gosia Gasperowicz told CTV News Edmonton.

“A simple mask requirement provincewide would probably stop influenza this season…in two or three weeks, probably we wouldn’t have it anymore. Influenza is easy, we’ve seen over the last winter seasons with simple things, we just eliminated it in our region.”

Dr. Gasperowicz said doctors and scientists are still working to reach a consensus on why respiratory viruses are surging right now, but she said there are scientific publications that found COVID-19 infection weakened people’s immune systems. 

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