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Premiers, PM hold meeting over Omicron spread ahead of the holidays


‘What we’re seeing is an incredibly rapidly spreading variant, and we are worried about Canadians that might end up either stranded or sick abroad’

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Premier Jason Kenney joined fellow Canadian premiers on a phone call with the prime minister on Tuesday to discuss a national reaction to the spread of the Omicron variant, including potentially new travel restrictions in the midst of the holiday season.

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Kenney’s executive director of communications, Brock Harrison, wrote on Twitter that Alberta’s regular Tuesday COVID-19 update meeting was being postponed due to the premier being on a call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other premiers from across Canada.

It is widely believed the call was being held to discuss the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and discussions on whether to impose new travel restrictions ahead of the holidays.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters in Ottawa that discussions would include new travel recommendations for Canadians.

“We are very concerned about those that would be travelling abroad at this particular time,” he said Tuesday. “What we’re seeing is an incredibly rapidly spreading variant, and we are worried about Canadians that might end up either stranded or sick abroad.”

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The expected change in travel restrictions comes amid fears of the Omicron variant that was first identified in South Africa and is currently driving a spike in cases in Ontario. There have been 50 cases of Omicron identified in Alberta, according to provincial data.

Several provinces issued new health orders Tuesday to slow the spread of the variant, as Ontario placed restrictions on visitors at long-term care homes, while Quebec sent public employees home to work.

Kenney is expected to hold an update on Wednesday, Harrison tweeted.

Before the premier’s change of plans, it was widely anticipated relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta ahead of Christmas were to be announced.

“I don’t want to create a situation where we have millions of Albertans violating the rules when we were not in a current emergency situation,” he previously said.

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The premier had also promised news on a plan to make more rapid testing kits available to the general public.

As of last week the province has deployed about six million tests and has about 5.5 million in inventory, according to Alberta Health.

Earlier Tuesday, Calgary International Airport officials said they were anticipating up to 35,000 passengers daily through the holiday season if COVID-19 restrictions remain as-is for international travel.

In 2019, the airport had a banner year, seeing almost 80 million guests, about 50,000 people a day.

“We’re by no means back to what a 2019 volume was, but certainly we’ve seen really, really strong demand and desire for Calgarians and those that connect through our airport with our hub airline partners, to go south to go to the sun destinations,” said Chris Miles, the airport’s vice-president of operations and infrastructure.

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Air travellers during the Christmas rush at the Calgary International Airport in Calgary on Tuesday, December 14, 2021.
Air travellers during the Christmas rush at the Calgary International Airport in Calgary on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

But as with all things COVID-19, plans can change in short order. Passengers on Tuesday afternoon were anxious to get on their flights with talk of looming federal changes to border restrictions.

“I’m fully vaxxed but I still have to get a test (before my flight),” said Terry Abraham, who’s headed to Texas for a few days for work.

“I’ve been flying right through the pandemic. It was scary at first, but then after a while you just have to get the job done.”

The Calgary airport is stepping in to assist travellers with their tests, with a departures-level clinic offering PCR test results within a day and rapid antigen test results within an hour.

With more people anticipated to take off through the holidays, the airport authority said it’s important for passengers to keep up with the latest rules and requirements, and refresh themselves on the typical rules as to what you can and cannot pack in your luggage. Travellers should also head to the airport earlier than usual, at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.

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“We can’t tell people enough to arrive early,” said Morgan Bell, public relations manager with WestJet.

“What we’ve learned over the past 20 months is that evolving travel restrictions and advisories are happening in real time. We need travellers to understand the measures that are in place.”

Air travellers during the Christmas rush at the Calgary International Airport in Calgary on Tuesday, December 14, 2021.
Air travellers during the Christmas rush at the Calgary International Airport in Calgary on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

To help with the time crunch, the airport is offering online parking reservations and a new pilot project called YYC Express that will let people book an appointment for airport security without waiting in line.

While there are significant additional requirements on both sides of the journey, especially for international flights, travellers at the airport Tuesday said it wasn’t much of a hassle to get everything in order.

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“It was a bit hectic. Everything was on my mind for sure,” said Tamari Bibi, who’s headed home to the U.K. with her husband and three kids after two years in Calgary.

More than anything else, travellers are willing to take the risk right now — especially for their families.

“I’m not nervous; just super keen. My son and his wife live (in Switzerland),” said Margaret Callbeck, who is travelling to Zurich alongside her husband and daughter.

“They just had a baby so we get to meet our granddaughter.”

Meanwhile, Alberta reported 250 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing active cases to 4,016, down from 4,182 on Monday.

There are 366 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 70 in intensive-care units. Hinshaw tweeted Tuesday that 84 per cent of COVID-19 patients in hospital are unvaccinated.

Eight additional deaths were reported Tuesday, bringing the total number of fatalities due to COVID-19 in Alberta to 3,283.

— With files from Postmedia Edmonton and the Canadian Press

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