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

Edmonton

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

A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the city of Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 1, 2014. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo council passed a motion to declare a state of local emergency on Sunday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

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

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

In a joint statement issued on Sunday, Fort McMurray public and Catholic school divisions also announced they will move classes online for all grades starting April 26. Both school divisions say they made the request to the Ministry of Education because COVID-19 cases numbers are rising. Classrooms are expected to remain closed for two weeks. The request was approved Sunday.

"We want all students to be in school, but with this recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Fort McMurray we know this is a difficult, yet correct decision," Fort McMurray Catholic Schools Superintendent George McGuigan said in a news release.

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.

As of Sunday, Fort McMurray reported over 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the school divisions.

"Almost one-third of all cases in Fort McMurray since the COVID-19 pandemic began have been confirmed in the past month," the news release said.

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 community access to more resources.

Council also passed a motion to request the provincial and federal governments to provide an accelerated vaccine distribution for Wood Buffalo. And it passed a motion that local leaders call for an urgent, emergency meeting with the Premier Jason Kenney, ministers and federal leaders.

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

Coun. Keith McGrath said said he does not support the declaration of a state of local emergency due to the expansive powers it provides administration.

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

"It turns everything over to people who are not elected, who don't understand people's pain," McGrath said in an interview Monday.

"And us elected officials, we should be ones looking after our residents because that what we were put in their office for … and we have some experience at that."

McGrath said residents are fed up about 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.

He said the community needs more help from provincial health officials and must act quickly to contain the spread.

"Our community is facing a watershed moment and the government of 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.

"We need to get the bureaucrats out of the way and have a common cause for our community."

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