Alberta’s Wood Buffalo region to declare state of local emergency as COVID-19 cases climb

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta is declaring a state of local emergency due to climbing COVID-19 case numbers.

Wood Buffalo council passed the motion Sunday night in response to the region’s worsening COVID-19 situation, a news release said. The municipality encompasses the community of Fort McMurray and is the centre of Alberta’s oilsands production.

The region now has the highest number of cases per capita in the province. The municipality is contending with at least 17 separate outbreaks — at oilsands camps, businesses and daycare centres — and its only hospital has expanded  capacity in its intensive care unit (ICU) to accommodate a growing number of coronavirus patients.

Declaring a state of local emergency will give the municipality temporary powers — under the provincial Emergency Management Act — to prevent the crisis from escalating, the release said. Mainly, it gives the community access to more resources.

Council also passed additional motions to request accelerated vaccine distribution for Wood Buffalo and to call for an emergency meeting with Premier Jason Kenney, ministers and federal leaders.

Those recommendations will be raised at a public council meeting Tuesday. 

On Monday, hundreds of local classrooms closed and public and Catholic students are expected to remain at home for at least two weeks.

In a joint statement issued on Sunday, both divisions said they made the request to the Ministry of Education due to rising case numbers. 

Wood Buffalo had 1,102 active cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, which amounts to 1,320 cases per 100,000 people in the region, which has a population of about 83,500. 

In a statement, Alberta Health Services (AHS) said the rising rates of transmission and “very high” case rates are having an impact at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

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AHS said two additional ICU beds have recently been added and the hospital has the capacity to expand further if needed. 

All nine beds in the ICU are currently occupied and a dedicated COVID unit is caring for an additional ten patients. In total, the hospital currently has 19 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, AHS said. 

‘Watershed moment’

Coun. Keith McGrath said he does not support the declaration of a state of local emergency due to the expansive powers it provides the municipality’s administrative staff.

McGrath said councillors were locked out of decision-making when states of emergency were declared during the 2016 wildfire and record flooding in the spring of 2020.

“We should be the ones looking after our residents because that’s what we were put in office for,” McGrath said in an interview Monday. “And we have some experience at that.”  

McGrath said residents are fed up with rising case numbers and the lack of communication around the emergency response.

He said the response should instead focus on determining how COVID-19 is entering the community. Administration does not have a clear sense of how the virus is spreading, he said. 

“Our community is facing a watershed moment and the government at all levels needs to come to the table.

“The ICUs are near full, the hospital staff are taxed, the organization is taxed and the only thing we can do is draw that attention back to the other levels of government to be heard.” 

Community at elevated risk  

Ian Seggie, who has lived in Fort McMurray for 18 years and works as a heavy equipment operator in the oilsands, describes the recent spike, which coincides with a rise in variants across Alberta, as the “perfect storm.” 

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He said the community is at an elevated risk due to its limited hospital capacity and highly transient workforce, many of whom are currently on the move due to spring shut downs in the oilsands. 

According to Seggie, stronger public restrictions, including the closure of non-essential businesses, could help stem the surge.  

“The restrictions aren’t to control people, they’re to protect our health-care system and if we don’t make these hard decisions now, there are too many what ifs, and if those what ifs come to fruition, it’s not going to be good for anybody.” 

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