Free rapid tests, gathering rules eased slightly for Christmas season, and boosting boosters
Protecting Albertans against the Omicron variant
Alberta is taking immediate actions and clarifying health measures to protect Albertans and the health-care system against the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.
Expanding rapid testing
Alberta’s rapid testing program is expanding to allow all Albertans to have access to free rapid tests. Test kits of five individual tests will be available at select Alberta Health Services sites and select pharmacies starting Dec. 17. More than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will initially be available for at-home use. Rapid test kits will also be made available at more schools and for vulnerable populations.
Expanding vaccine boosters
As of Dec. 15, Albertans aged 50 and older and all health-care workers who had their second dose six months ago or longer can book a third dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine to increase their protection against the virus. This will make up to 700,000 more Albertans eligible to book boosters.
Ramping up health system capacity
Alberta Health is working with Alberta Health Services on planning to restore intensive care unit surge capacity if Omicron begins to put pressure on the health-care system. Alberta Health is also reviewing policies for health-care worker exposure, infection prevention and control, and visitors to acute/continuing care sites.
Clarifying health measures
Albertans are being asked to observe public health measures over the holidays around social gatherings, masking and personal practices. Indoor social gatherings will remain limited to 10 people. This applies to Albertans aged 18 and over, with no limits on those under 18. Additionally, there will be no limits on number of households and no distinction between vaccine and unvaccinated attendees. With these modest changes, Alberta’s social gathering restrictions remain among the most stringent in Canada.
“We are closely monitoring developments around the Omicron variant and are taking immediate action to protect Albertans and slow the spread in our province. We strongly encourage Albertans to do their part to address the threat of Omicron by getting a booster dose, using rapid tests when appropriate and following Alberta’s public health guidelines.”
“More Albertans are choosing to be vaccinated and following public health measures, which is helping protect Alberta’s health system. However, as with past variants, Omicron has the potential to change the situation quickly. Immediately expanding access to booster doses and offering free rapid testing will allow Albertans to identify infections and protect against them.”
“We are expanding our successful at-home rapid testing program to help parents, students and staff feel even more confident about learning safely in the classroom. It’s another layer of protection, together with vaccines and public health measures, to keep school communities safe.”
“Vaccines remain the most effective tool we have against COVID-19. It is especially important to get the booster dose when eligible with emerging information about third doses being more effective against the Omicron variant. Vaccines give good protection against severe disease and hospitalization but their effectiveness can decrease over time, especially with this new variant. I encourage eligible Albertans to take advantage of the increased protection that third doses offer, even if they have had a previous COVID-19 infection.”
Booster eligibility expansion
Starting Dec. 15, Albertans aged 50 and older and all health-care workers can book a third dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine if they received their second dose at least six months before.
Eligible individuals can book appointments for third doses online with participating pharmacies or AHS by using the Alberta vaccine booking system. Albertans can also call 811, participating pharmacies or participating physicians’ offices.
Albertans who were previously eligible for third doses continue to be able to book their appointments. For information on eligibility, visit alberta.ca/vaccine.
At-home rapid test kits
Starting Dec. 17, Albertans can pick up a free BTNX rapid test kit from 700 select pharmacies in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer, and 140 select Alberta Health Services sites in other communities. To find a location, visit alberta.ca/CovidRapidTests. As more tests become available from Health Canada, more locations will be added.
Kits will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. To ensure as many Albertans have access as possible, there is a limit of one box of tests within a 14-day period per person. Albertans can pick up one additional box for another person(s) who cannot pick one up themselves provided they have each individual’s health care number.
Each BTNX rapid test kit contains five rapid tests. For maximum benefit, an individual should use two tests each week, 72 hours apart. Tests are of particular benefit for those who have had a recent COVID-19 exposure. Each test kit includes an information sheet with details on how and when to use the test.
These tests are intended for at-home personal use for regular screening in asymptomatic people. Albertans who screen positive on a rapid test or who have COVID-19 symptoms should book a confirmatory PCR test through Alberta Health Services and must isolate for 10 days or until they receive a negative PCR test result.
In-home rapid tests will also be made available to foster families and kinship caregivers with school-aged children.
Albertans who are looking for tests for their workplace are encouraged to access tests through their employers’ rapid test programs. If an employer does not provide tests, Albertans must provide documentation from privately paid tests.
The rapid test kits provided for free through Alberta’s rapid testing programs cannot be used for the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP), which requires privately paid test results.
Additionally, the rapid test kits cannot be used for travel. They do not include appropriate documentation, so Albertans should not attempt to use them for domestic or international travel needs.
School rapid testing program
All K-6 schools on alert status (two or more cases in the last 14 days who were present at school while infectious) can now request rapid test kits. Participation in the program is optional for schools, parents and staff.
Eligible schools can submit a K-6 at-home rapid testing program request form. More information is available online.
To date, more than 90 schools have requested tests for students and staff and more than 35,000 students and staff have accessed rapid tests through this program.
All rapid tests are only for people without COVID-19 symptoms. If an individual has COVID-19 symptoms, they must not use a rapid test. They should stay home, isolate and book a test through Alberta Health Services with the online assessment tool or by calling 811.
Rapid testing program
Rapid tests continue to be available to any public, private or not-for-profit employer or service provider with an approved COVID-19 screening program.
Organizations can continue to apply at alberta.ca/rapidtesting or with their local chamber of commerce.
Social gathering changes
Effective immediately, indoor private social gatherings will no longer be limited to two households. The maximum number of individuals 18 years and older permitted is 10. In addition, there will be no distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated Albertans.
The temporary state of public health emergency has lapsed. However, all other current public health restrictions 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.
Canada under pressure to produce more food, protect agricultural land: report
Canada’s agricultural land is under increasing pressure to produce more food as demand grows domestically and internationally, while the industry grapples with limited resources and environmental constraints, a new report found.
“We need to grow more food on less land and in a volatile climate,” said Tyler McCann, managing director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.
The report by the institute released Thursday looks at the pressures on Canada’s agricultural land to produce more food while also mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, said McCann.
Despite Canada being a big country, it doesn’t have as much agricultural land as people might think, said McCann, with the report noting that agricultural land makes up only around seven per cent of the country.
Because of that, we can’t take what we do have for granted, he said. “We need to be really thoughtful about how we are using our agricultural land.”
In 2020, Canada was the eighth largest country in terms of cropland area, the report said, with that cropland decreasing by seven per cent over the previous two decades.
Canada is a major producer and net exporter of agriculture and agri-food products, the report said, exporting $91 billion in products in 2022, and one of the top 10 exporters of wheat, canola, pulses, pork and beef.
In the coming years, Canada will face increased demand from countries whose populations are growing, the report said.
“With population growth on one side and climate change on the other, Canada will be amongst an increasingly smaller number of countries that is a net exporter,” said McCann, noting that Canada’s own population is growing, and farmland also needs to be protected against urban sprawl.
The wildfires clouding Canadian skies this week are a “vivid reminder” of the pressure that extreme weather and the changing climate are putting on the agricultural sector, said McCann.
“We need to clearly mitigate … agriculture’s impact on climate change. But we also need to make sure agriculture is adapting to climate change’s impacts,” he said.
One of the ways the world has responded to demand for increased agricultural production over time is to create more agricultural land, in some cases by cutting down forests, said McCann. But that’s not a viable option for Canada, which doesn’t have a lot of land that can be sustainably converted into farmland — and even if it could, doing so could have a variety of adverse environmental effects, he said.
Some of the practices used to reduce emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture can also improve production output on existing farmland, the report found, such as precision agriculture and no-till practices.
However, intensifying the production of current agricultural land also comes with potential environmental downsides, the report said.
For example, McCann said fertilizer is an important part of sustainable agriculture, but there’s a balance to be struck because excessive use of fertilizer can quickly turn food production unsustainable.
“We need to be a lot more thoughtful about the inputs that we’re using,” he said, adding the same can be said about the use of technology in agriculture and the policies and programs put in place to encourage sustainable intensification of Canadian agriculture.
The report recommends that Canada adopt policies that provide financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and develop regulatory frameworks promoting sustainable land use, as well as promoting education and awareness campaigns, so that the country can “ensure the long-term sustainability of its agricultural sector while protecting the environment.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press
Lawyer tells Alberta’s highest court review board biased in de Grood’s case
A family member of five slain students holds a heart sign with their names on it following a court decision in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Alberta’s highest court is being asked to overturn a review board decision on the stabbing deaths of five young people at a Calgary house party that confined a man to a supervised Edmonton group home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
By Ritika Dubey in Edmonton
Alberta’s highest court is being asked to overturn a review board decision that confined a man to a supervised Edmonton group home after the stabbing deaths of five young people at a Calgary house party.
The lawyer representing Matthew de Grood argued Wednesday the review board’s decision was biased, citing what she described as political interference from Alberta’s former justice minister.
“The appellant says, ‘I think the conclusion about me is wrong. The board’s conclusion is incorrect and not supported by evidence,”’ Jacqueline Petrie said before the Alberta Court of Appeal. “He says there’s no significant evidence that he’s a risk.”
De Grood, 31, was found not criminally responsible in 2016 for the killings two years earlier of Zackariah Rathwell, Jordan Segura, Kaitlin Perras, Josh Hunter and Lawrence Hong because he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time. Petrie said de Grood has been stable on medication, is at low risk to reoffend and should be allowed to live with his parents while being monitored under a full warrant.
She argued the review board misunderstood medical evidence during the September 2022 review, which deemed de Grood a significant risk despite the assessment showing improvements. She said the board is supposed to recommend the least onerous disposition compatible with public safety and did not do that for de Grood.
The defence lawyer has said the review had been influenced by former justice minister Doug Schweitzer, who weighed in on de Grood’s case in October 2019 after the panel allowed de Grood to transition from institutional care to a supervised group home.
He has been under supervision at a group home. His case is reviewed by the Alberta Review Board yearly to see whether he can transition back into the community while maintaining public safety.
Petrie pointed at de Grood’s “exemplary record,” and that he has been “compliant to the (medical) treatment team.”
“Nobody knew he had schizophrenia (at the time of the stabbings) and needed medication.”
Crown prosecutor Matthew Griener said the board considered a conditional discharge but dismissed it, citing a relapse in schizophrenia symptoms in 2021.
Griener said de Grood’s relapses were brief and happened at the hospital, providing an early window for medical professionals to intervene.
Justice Kevin Feehan said de Grood may be low-risk, but the consequences of even one relapse could be significant.
Reading from an expert’s report, Feehan said: “A low risk to offend doesn’t mean the reoffence would not be severe.”
Some family members of the victims drove from Calgary for the hearing.
Segura’s mother, Patty, said the last nine years have been about de Grood and his rights.
“He should be thankful that he ended up NCR (not criminally responsible) rather than end(ing) with five life sentences for murdering five people,” she said. “He should not be appealing.”
Hunter’s father, Barclay, opposed a potential full release.
“The idea that he wouldn’t be monitored for the rest of his life seems to defy logic, it doesn’t make any sense,” said the father.
Hunter’s mother, Kelly, said the family has had “no healing.”
“We do this every year, at least once. Now, this is the second appeal,” she said. Barclay
Hunter said although there are attempts to reintegrate de Grood into society, he hopes the man is not left on his own with an absolute discharge.
“Regardless of what they say, he killed five people. If that doesn’t stand on its own as a risk factor, then I don’t know what does.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
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