Coronavirus: How is Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency preparing?

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WATCH: The City of Calgary is moving ahead with plans to deal with COVID-19. As Gil Tucker reports, it is putting plans in place so employees can continue to provide important services. – Mar 11, 2020

As Calgary and the world continue to grapple with the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic, the city’s emergency management agency — CEMA — is telling the city and its government to be prepared for anything.

Speaking to Calgary city council on Wednesday, CEMA chief Tom Sampson said the focus of his team is to prevent a rapid rise in Calgary cases, adding the city is not immune.

‘This is going to come’

“We’re not special. This is going to come. But I think that we can make a special effort to delay it coming,” Sampson said.

He said delaying the spread and severity will give health-care facilities more time to get out of the current flu season. He said it also removes some of the confusion around whether people have the common flu or COVID-19 and allows more experimentation with anti-virals as well as the exploration of a possible vaccine.

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“Our priority is the safety and well-being of Calgarians and city staff,” Sampson said. “The way we see it is… if we can keep city staff healthy, to provide the essential services to Calgarians, to continue to put the messaging out, to continue to support Alberta Health Services, we’ll be in the best shape that we can be in.”

The number of confirmed cases in Alberta rose to 19 on Wednesday, the same day the World Health Organization officially called COVID-19 a pandemic.

READ MORE: Alberta coronavirus cases jump to 19, one patient visited Edmonton hospital before testing positive

As of Wednesday, all of Alberta’s cases were travel-related, however, Sampson said he “absolutely” believes community transmission will happen in Calgary, which CEMA is preparing for.

“We’re quite honestly wondering, if we start getting community-to-community transmission of the [virus], is that our next trigger for doing… a little bit more aggressive measures?” Sampson said.

He said the city’s infectious disease management plan, created at least 12 to 14 years ago, was reviewed just six months ago and officials are working to maintain the health and well-being of staff and support the containment of COVID-19.

“When containment doesn’t work anymore, what we have to go to is individual risk mitigation,” Sampson said.

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“So if I can be so bold to say, we can clean every bus every day, but as soon as the No. 4 runs downtown and it’s had a total of 18 or 50 people on it in the morning, it’s not a clean, sterile bus. We actually have to [teach] people how to mitigate the [virus] for themselves.”

READ MORE: You can catch coronavirus without travelling. Here’s how

Sampson said that self-mitigation should include the advice health officials have been giving out since the outbreak started: washing your hands, not touching your face, containing coughs and sneezes.

Advice around major events

Sampson said through the process of managing the ever-changing, daily response to the spread of coronavirus, CEMA has been meeting with Calgary Economic Development, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Tourism, the Calgary Stampede and post-secondary institutions to help guide their decision-making.

“We’re being very aggressive in terms of our meetings and trying to share information so those partners can look at the operation of Calgary and how we as a group… collaborate together,” he said.

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READ MORE: What are coronavirus symptoms? In mild cases, just like the common cold

When it comes to large gatherings, they’re being evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The decisions are being made with the help of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s document on mass gatherings and whether they should be held.

“We are going to have to cancel some events, and I think the important thing that we do is we do it in a measured way,” Sampson said.

He said the Safety Expo that was cancelled earlier this week was called off because having 4,000 children from across the city running around an enclosed space and interacting with each other “perfectly met their guidelines to cancel an event.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said all city-organized events are being evaluated quickly.

“We’re going to have a very small team working quickly, applying a bunch of criteria that have been provided by the Canadian government on gatherings,” Nenshi said.

“Those include the size of the gathering, the demographic of people who are going to be there, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, the interactivity of that [and] whether there can be physical space between people at the events.”
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Coronavirus outbreak: How many people can possibly get COVID-19? – Mar 11, 2020

Nenshi said while the city can’t cancel any events that are held in the community, officials want to set an example and are encouraging anyone hosting an event to apply the same criteria to their gathering before moving forward.

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When it comes to city business and projects like the Green Line LRT for example, Nenshi said things like public consultation sessions could be impacted by measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“It is not impossible that some projects may see their deadlines pushed forward because we haven’t been able to do the kind of work that we need to do,” Nenshi said.

Keeping city workers serving the public

Both Nenshi and Sampson agreed that a top priority is keeping city staff healthy so they can continue to keep Calgarians safe and informed as the situation develops.

That means CEMA has been working with officials to look at everything from human resources policies to health and safety policies, exercising social distancing and exploring the idea of “teleworking” or splitting up the workforce.

Sampson encouraged the city to separate workforces, especially those working in essential services. He suggested this could involve people working from separate locations or working remotely, adding “this is a time of leadership.”

READ MORE: Here’s why frequent handwashing is recommended in preventing spread of COVID-19

“We need you, in [the] sense of you are the seat of government for us, and so I think any activities that you can do that minimize the risk – teleworking, those sorts of things, letting the odd person work from home – those aren’t bad things to do,” Sampson told councillors.
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“Handshakes are out — we don’t do them anymore, or if I handshake, I immediately sanitize. This is a time for you to change your processes.”

Nenshi said the city hasn’t started the process of “teleworking” yet, but it has the capability, and if someone needs to self-quarantine, they may have the option to work from home.

He said the city is also exploring the idea of “proactively” having employees, and possibly those in council, work from home to avoid the spread and to separate workers.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What exactly is social distancing? Here’s what experts say

Sampson said CEMA also asked the city’s human resources department to look at whether employees should need to give a doctor’s note to take time off work because officials don’t want to put the extra burden on the health-care system during an already taxing period.

“There’s a strong message there to say early support to your employees creates a better work environment,” Sampson said.

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