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Coronavirus: 29 confirmed cases in Alberta; school closures not recommended at this time

Toews and Shandro say they won’t lay off Alberta nurses during pandemic
WATCH: Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews and Health Minister Tyler Shandro say they will not be laying off nurses while the province is dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

Alberta Health announced six new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 29 as of Friday.

“All of those are travel-related or cases who have been in close contact with a returning traveller,” said Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw in her daily update.

One of the new cases involved a man from the Edmonton zone who recently attended a conference in Vancouver and was notified that a positive case had been at the same event. After returning, he went to some dental offices. As soon as this case tested positive, health officials took immediate action, contacting all contacts who may have been at risk of exposure for follow-up assessment and testing.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health updates media Friday on spread of COVID-19
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health updates media Friday on spread of COVID-19

The other cases are in the Calgary zone and include a returning traveller from Florida, and four household contacts of a previously confirmed case.

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Hinshaw said one patient remains in hospital and the rest are recovering at home while self-isolating.

READ MORE: Edmonton rec centres to remain open for now; large events cancelled and COVID-19 task team created

Hinshaw said she’s hearing from concerned parents and teachers who are worried about the risk of the novel coronavirus in schools. However, she said school closures alone are not universally agreed to be an effective preventative measure.

Will Alberta schools shut their doors amid coronavirus pandemic?
Will Alberta schools shut their doors amid coronavirus pandemic?

Hinshaw also said schools would likely have to be closed for months, not weeks, for a closure to be effective.

“I have advised that school closures not be implemented at this time.”

She said post-secondary schools, day cares and schools can remain open but said they shouldn’t allow groups of 250 or more people to gather in one place.

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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health talks about why schools haven’t been closed
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health talks about why schools haven’t been closed

“The best thing we can do… is practice good hygiene,” Hinshaw said. “I want to really underline that anyone who is feeling ill with cough or fever to stay home.”

“The spread of COVID-19 is evolving daily and we cannot predict what it will look like next week.

“We are all in this together. The coming weeks are vital.”

She directed people to the Alberta Health website for information, which is being updated twice daily.

Shandro talks about physician compensation changes amid coronavirus pandemic
Shandro talks about physician compensation changes amid coronavirus pandemic

Online self-assessment tool

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Alberta Health Services is rapidly developing an online self-assessment tool, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said. Officials hope it will reduce call volumes to Health Link and help people determine if testing is required.

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“Health Link is receiving more than 6,300 calls daily,” Shandro said. “Given this volume, wait times can be high.”

Health Link staff has doubled and officials continue to train more staff.

“Please continue being patient and stay on the Health Link line,” Shandro said.

Shandro asked people to visit alberta.ca/covid19 for information, call Health Link outside peak hours, don’t call for test results (you will be contacted directly) and don’t call 911 for COVID-19 inquiries.

Resources for health system

Shandro said he’s assured Hinshaw and AHS that the health system has the government’s full support.

“I want to reassure Albertans that any resources needed will be there… driven by advice from Hinshaw and other health experts, not politics.”

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“We’ll be not be laying off any nurses at this time,” Finance Minister Travis Toews said.

“The plan was there would be reductions… over three years,” Shandro explained. “But look, this is definitely changed everything. We’re going to make sure AHS has the resources that it needs.”

Late Friday, Premier Jason Kenney met with NDP Leader Rachel Notley to discuss fast-tracking passage of the budget amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Notley speaks after meeting Premier Kenney to discuss Alberta’s coronavirus response
Notley speaks after meeting Premier Kenney to discuss Alberta’s coronavirus response

Notley expressed mistrust that the Kenney government will increase funding and avoid health-care layoffs since the budget currently before the legislature cuts jobs and money.

She said she rejected Kenney’s request to fast-track the budget, arguing it makes more sense to go slower and make sure the government backs up its new health promises with money.

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READ MORE: Confirmed coronavirus cases in Alberta rise to 23, officials urge cancellation of large gatherings

Provincial officials provide update on Alberta’s response to COVID-19
Provincial officials provide update on Alberta’s response to COVID-19

On Thursday, Alberta Health said any public gatherings of more than 250 people should be cancelled.

The provincial health authority also recommended against Albertans travelling outside the country at this time.

Protecting Economy and Employees

Kenney said he’s working with other provincial leaders and the federal government to develop a co-ordinated national response to both the public health crisis and the severe economic impacts.

He said he wrote a letter to Ottawa outlining requests for additional supports, including a vigorous economic stimulus plan, some type of control of borders, especially from countries of higher risk.

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Alberta extending sick leave from 5 to 14 days amid coronavirus pandemic
Alberta extending sick leave from 5 to 14 days amid coronavirus pandemic

Alberta will amend regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to support workers dealing with COVID-19. Patients will no longer require a doctor’s note and sick leave would be extended to 14 days.

“Our priority is public safety and health,” Kenney said. “We don’t want Albertans impacted by COVID-19 to feel like they have to go to work… to take care of their families.”

He also said the province will take steps to ensure these changes won’t be a further burden to employers.

“We’re all in this together. We all need to take preventative measures… And to ensure the spread of the illness is contained.

“I want to assure employers that we will ensure these actions will not be a further burden to your business,” Kenney added.

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Notley said she was told by Kenney that he expects Ottawa to cover off such payments through employment insurance, not the province.

“They are not actually providing paid sick leave,” Notley said. “They are hoping that the federal government will expand access to EI.”

“[The issue] absolutely needs to be clarified.”

The NDP leader said if the Alberta government wants to make employers pay for 14 days of sick leave, they would need to pass legislation with a provision to pay employers back for their costs. She said she would support such legislation then.

Kenney offers update on Alberta response to coronavirus
Kenney offers update on Alberta response to coronavirus

On Friday, the City of Edmonton announced all events over 250 people were cancelled. The city also ended programming and events at public rec centres and libraries.

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The City of Calgary implemented its Municipal Emergencies Plan on Thursday as a way to help stop the spread of the virus.

–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.