By COLLIN GALLANT on April 6, 2021.
Faced with a troubling new rise in COVID-19 numbers, the city’s emergency management officials say reopening plans are now uncertain while council members voted to petition for firefighters to be included in the coming phase of the vaccine rollout.
Merrick Brown told council in a bi-weekly presentation by the emergency management director that the province is now reporting more than 10,000 active cases of the disease and rising.
That is now over levels that would make stage 3 reopenings a consideration, he said.
“It’s over double what we saw a month ago and locally we’re seeing a similar trend,” he said. The city is now seeing its highest case count at 45 as of Monday since early January.
“But there is still optimism with vaccines. We’re in the phase now to eradicate the virus.”
City council, which had questioned Brown this winter about how to advocate for a regional approach – noting single-digit cases in the Hat while high numbers persisted elsewhere – now questioned Brown on operational readiness and how the city could support the vaccination effort.
“Obviously this is a bit more grim than what we expected a few weeks ago,” said Coun. Robert Dumanowski.
“But there is a reason for optimism. The drive now is for vaccines.”
Speaking on a separate issue, Mayor Ted Clugston said he considers the province to be in a third wave and it will be “massive.”
Brown said the city is providing traffic support and other help at the vaccine clinic at the Medicine Hat Stampede Grounds, and is reviewing its own operational continuity plans, but doesn’t yet see the need to change course.
“It’s difficult to predict where this is going,” he said. “We haven’t changed our (internal) control measures for more than a year, and continuously evaluate the data.”
For more than a year officials have said their focus is on maintaining vital operations, such as utility service, police and fire response, by preventing illness or outbreaks in its staff.
Coun. Julie Friesen told council that should extend to firefighters and moved a motion to ask the province to reconsider putting local firefighters, who respond to medical emergencies, high in the vaccine queue. The city would also arrange for the issue to be taken up by the city’s provincial lobby group, the AUMA.
“For me it’s incomprehensible for our government to take a group that is often first on the scene to a medical emergency and leave them out,” said Friesen. “It’s deplorable.”
Paramedics and police officers are included in Phase 2C of the rollout, scheduled to get underway in April to June once Phase 2B, including young and middle-aged people with certain health conditions, is in hand.
Originally, Brown stated local firefighters may be included as a medical category, but eventual qualifications require them to hold paramedic certification.
Four years ago, Medicine Hat firefighters began responding to non-fire-related but serious medical emergencies when they were considered closest by dispatchers.
Last month, the Alberta Firefighter Association and the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association signed a joint letter asking that professional and rural volunteer firefighters be added.
Several councillors stated that should put them into the next phase, but others argued council shouldn’t begin prioritizing who is and isn’t an essential worker.
Coun. Jamie McIntosh, a teacher in private life, said he wouldn’t pick one group over another.
“I can think of a group of people in this city who have made sure we have a safe supply of food, that have terrible benefit plans, can’t take time off, and don’t make anywhere near the salary of firefighters or teachers,” he said.
“I struggle with writing a letter with supporting just one group.”
Coun. Phil Turnbull agreed, adding “I don’t think the letter would change the province’s thinking.”
Coun. Kris Samraj said he didn’t appreciate debating the issue on short notice and wouldn’t support the motion.
Coun. Darren Hirsh said the motion might open a “Pandora’s box,” but he would support it.
Eventually, council endorsed the motion on a 6-3 count.
“It comes down to the fact they are our employees and we’ll advocate for them,” said Clugston.