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Premier Jason Kenney declares COVID-19 public health emergency in Alberta

WATCH ABOVE: Premier Jason Kenney speaks to reporters about Alberta's response to COVID-19 on Tuesday.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on information provided by the province, a previous version of this story said that of Alberta’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, three are in the South zone and one in the North zone. It has since been updated to say three are in the North zone and one in the South zone based on a correction provided by the government of Alberta.

Premier Jason Kenney declared a state of public health emergency in Alberta over the novel coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday.

Kenney said the decision came after a meeting with the emergency management committee Monday night.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said the province has 23 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total up to 97 and up from 74 a day earlier.

Here is how the cases break down by age, according to Alberta Health:

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• Age 80+: 0
• Age 65-79: 10
• Age 55-64: 13
• Age: 35-54: 44
• Age 25-34: 13
• Age 20-24: 2
• Age 15-19: 3
• Age 10-14: 4
• Age 5-9: 3
• Age 1-4: 5
• Under one year: 0

“One of the critical things — I’d talked before about some of the community-acquired cases we’d seen and we have seen a few more cases that we’re still investigating but that are concerning,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters when asked why she recommended that the government declare a public health emergency on Tuesday. “I anticipate having more information tomorrow to share about those.

“But it does seem to me that we are seeing a few more instances where community transmission is possible. In addition, we’re seeing examples such as the dental conference that I referenced before, and we now have six cases in Alberta alone from that one dental conference.

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“We are trying to get the word out about instances like that… when we see examples like that one conference [and] where just in our province, we’ve seen many cases where the single gathering in one home…10 cases associated with just one gathering, to me, these are indications that we need to take these steps to be ready for what I believe may come in the next several weeks.

Watch below: Some videos from Dr. Hinshaw’s news conference in Edmonton on Tuesday.

Hinshaw referenced the importance of “flattening the curve” while responding to the reporter.

“I believe the time is right to really set us up for success because I think if we wait until we’re overwhelmed and then declare, it’s a little late when we could do it proactively,” she said.

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Click to play video 'Alberta cases of coronavirus rise to 97 as province increases social distancing measures' Alberta cases of coronavirus rise to 97 as province increases social distancing measures
Alberta cases of coronavirus rise to 97 as province increases social distancing measures – Mar 17, 2020

What is banned

The province is moving forward with aggressive new measures on social distancing, including banning gatherings of groups of 50 or more. Existing events should be cancelled immediately, he said.

Citizens are also banned from public places like casinos, bingo halls, theatres, children’s play centres, recreation centres and arenas, science centres, museums and art galleries, community centres, fitness facilities, and entertainment facilities like movie theatres.

READ MORE: Ontario government declares state of emergency amid coronavirus pandemic

Kenney also advised that family events such as weddings and funerals of more than 50 people should be cancelled, as should concerts and religious gatherings. Until further notice, all Albertans are restricted from attending bars and nightclubs.

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Hinshaw acknowledged that the measures would be hard on some Albertans but noted that she believes they are necessary to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

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“These are aggressive steps that we do not take lightly but these are necessary to keep us all healthy and safe,” she said. “The only means we have to keep the virus from spreading is to limit contact between people.

“The more we can slow the spread of the virus down, the less likely it is that there will be a surge of cases that overwhelm our health system’s capacity to care for those that need hospitalization or intensive care.”

Hinshaw said of the 97 cases, five involve hospitalizations and two people are in intensive care. She said all other cases involve people self-isolating and where full recoveries are expected.

Of the 97 cases in Alberta, 70 are in the Calgary zone, 20 in the Edmonton zone, three in the Central zone, three in the North zone and one in the South zone.

Click to play video 'COVID-19: Alberta declares state of emergency, bans attending bars, museums, public gatherings of 50 or more' COVID-19: Alberta declares state of emergency, bans attending bars, museums, public gatherings of 50 or more
COVID-19: Alberta declares state of emergency, bans attending bars, museums, public gatherings of 50 or more – Mar 17, 2020

What is not banned

The ban does not apply to health care facilities, grocery stores, airports, the Alberta legislature, and other essential services.

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Sit-down restaurants, cafés, coffee shops, food courts and other food-serving facilities, including those with a minors-allowed liquor license, are limited to 50 per cent capacity to a maximum of 50 people.

READ MORE: Canadians ‘do not need to panic’ about food shortages amid COVID-19, experts say

Restaurant take-out, delivery or drive-through service is permitted. Licensed facilities will also be permitted to deliver liquor.

Kenney said the Provincial Operations Centre was tracking supply chains there was no reason to be worried about food shortages and advised against hoarding.

“There is no logical reason for people to go out and buy weeks and weeks — or months — of supplies.”

Kenney commended some stores, like Shoppers Drug Mart and Sobeys, for introducing earlier store hours specifically for seniors to shop.

“I would ask all retailers to consider having a dedicated, safe and orderly time when seniors and the vulnerable can access what they need.”

The elderly are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.

“We are also, as I said, working with charities to see if they can step up deliveries — complimentary deliveries — to the homes of seniors for pharmaceuticals, cleaning equipment, food and other necessities,” Kenney said.

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Non-profit, religious and community soup kitchens are also exempt, as are homeless shelters. Kenney said the province was working with the shelters on a plan for those facilities.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Major Canadian grocers to offer special hours for seniors to stock up

What is a state of emergency?

The province has only ever enacted a state of emergency twice: during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and during the southern Alberta floods in 2013.

Declaring one gives the government far-reaching powers so it can take centralized control in a crisis, enact emergency plans and order the evacuation of people, livestock and personal property.

Declaring a public health emergency also gives the chief medical officer of health, who is Alberta’s top doctor, greater powers, Kenney said.

That could include bringing nurses or doctors out of retirement, Kenney explained.

“We have been briefed that the single greatest concern in the future — in coping with the peak time in the pandemic — will be around the availability of trained personnel.

“The chief medical officer and Alberta Health Services may need extra authorities for scheduling: perhaps to bring back medical professionals who have retired recently, or to cancel vacation time.”

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Kenney said everyone understands during a pandemic there will be a peak demand for health care, and Tuesday’s move aims to plan for that to avoid facilities exceeding capacity.

“These are the kinds of authorities that are presented in the Public Health Act through the declaration of a public health emergency that will give certainty of our ability to provide the medical care that Albertans will need.”

Hinshaw said AHS is now postponing all scheduled and elective surgeries. Urgent and emergency surgeries as well as oncology treatment and scheduled cesarian procedures will continue, however.

She said AHS will contact Albertans scheduled for procedures and reschedule as soon as possible.

“It’s a necessary step to ensure the health system can sustain its pandemic response and be able to respond to emergencies,” Hinshaw said. “We will get through this together but we need your help and support by following these orders and all other public health guidance.

“I cannot stress this enough: we must all take measures to improve sanitization and cleanliness,” she said, while also reminding Albertans to stay home and self-isolate if they don’t feel well and to make every effort to practice social distancing.

“New public health measures under this state of emergency will limit the time Albertans spend in large crowds and crowded spaces,” she noted.

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On Tuesday, the province said Alberta’s Provincial Operations Centre has also been elevated from a level three to a level four, the highest level. Kenney said he visited the centre Monday night and was impressed with the staff.

“I know that this province is resilient and we are ready for the test,” Kenney said.

“I have full confidence in our public health and safety officials and we will continue doing everything in our power to contain the outbreak and keep Albertans safe.”

Municipalities, charitable and non-profit organizations providing social services support will immediately see $60 million to support their COVID-19 response, the province said.

The government said the funding will be provided to adult homeless shelters, women’s emergency shelters and the Family and Community Support Services program, which supports municipalities and civil society organizations in providing services to vulnerable Albertans.

Comparing COVID-19 to other pandemics

Hinshaw said Tuesday that health officials have learned things from past pandemics and are trying to apply that knowledge to the present situation where possible.

“We’d be making predictions based on that past experience, knowing that this is the first time in recorded history that we have had a coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “So we’re making inferences from what we’ve seen in influenza pandemics, which I think is reasonable — there’s similarities in some of the mechanisms of spread, but again, knowing that we can’t make perfect predictions.”

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Hinshaw spoke about the 2009 pandemic, the year there was an H1N1 outbreak.

“[That year], we did have a surge of cases in the spring, in sort of April and May, and then over the summer we saw the transmission go to a pretty low level,” she said. “And in the fall we had what was called the second wave, where we had an increase in the number of cases again, and that second wave was much higher than the first in the spring.

“Over the summer… perhaps, if this is the same as previous pandemics, we may be able to ease off a little bit, but we’ll need to be ready in the fall for the possibility that it could come back again and have plans to deal with it at that point.”

Staffing issues prompt closure of some DynaLIFE labs in Alberta

On Tuesday night, a spokesperson for DyanLIFE confirmed to Global News that the lab services company had been forced to close some of its locations in Alberta.

They said the closures are the result of staffing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some employees either staying home with children because classes have been cancelled or self-isolating after returning home from a trip.

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They said the closures have nothing to do with any confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19 at the DynaLIFE locations themselves.

READ MORE: 74 confirmed coronavirus cases in Alberta, cases detected in all health zones

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people, such as fever and cough, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems.

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

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

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. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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.