EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the payments the Alberta government is making available for eligible adults who must self-isolate.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alberta rose again on Wednesday to 119.
Premier Jason Kenney provided more clarity on the dire threat the health crisis poses to the economy and how he plans to help citizens and companies already struggling with the financial fallout from the pandemic.
“This public health crisis has been met by challenges… of an increasingly unprecedented proportion,” he said in a speech he delivered at the Alberta legislature, noting the situation will lead to more “lost jobs and lost dreams.”
At a news conference on Wednesday, the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said she is well aware that the recommendations she makes to government on how to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus are having a massive impact on the economy.
“We have had to weigh lives against livelihoods,” she said.
Hinshaw added there is a “need to respond to this extraordinary crisis with extraordinary kindness,” not only to those who are sick, but also to people who have lost jobs or income as a result of the crisis.
Cases in Alberta up to 119, but Albertans are following AHS advice
Hinshaw said Alberta has 22 new confirmed COVID-19 cases since a day earlier, when the province declared a public health emergency to deal with the situation.
Watch below: Some Global News videos about Alberta’s response to COVID-19.
She said the total number of cases as of Wednesday afternoon is 119 and that there have been no deaths so far.
Hinshaw said she suspects “six of these cases are community transmission” and that six patients are in hospital while all other cases involve people self-isolating at home. Of those COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalizations, three are in intensive care units. She called these cases “game-changers.”
“Albertans will not be immune,” Kenney said. “There will be fatalities.”
Hinshaw noted that while the health crisis continues to become more acute worldwide and at home, she has seen some things that have provided her with encouragement.
She said the province’s online assessment tool for people who are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 has been accessed 1.5 million times. She said 15,000 tests have been administered in the province, and she believes that amounts to more tests per capita than anywhere else in North America.
Hinshaw said several of the province’s most recent cases involved travellers who were returning home. She said in these cases, the travellers followed health officials’ advice and immediately self-isolated, called Health Link and got tested. She said their actions saw them limit the potential of exposure to others.
“Thank you,” Hinshaw said, while speaking about people following health guidelines during the pandemic. “Your actions are life-saving for others.”
“We will get through this together.”
On Tuesday, Health Link received 10,800 calls.
Hinshaw again spoke of cases of COVID-19 that have been linked to the Pacific Dental Conference in Vancouver earlier this month. She said seven Alberta cases are connected to that event and that all people should “self-isolate immediately, even if feeling well” for 14 days from when they left the conference.
Hinshaw said there have been two COVID-19 cases in Calgary and one in Edmonton that have left health officials with questions as they are not sure where the contracted the illness.
“This is concerning,” Hinshaw said.
Of the COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 83 are in the Calgary zone, 27 are in the Edmonton zone, four are in the North zone, three are in the Central zone and two are in the South zone. Hinshaw said she and her colleagues believe the numbers are higher in the Calgary area, in part, because of how many people travel to that city.
Unlike in some other provinces, Alberta continues to allow visitors to hospitals if they meet certain requirements. When asked why the province is not restricting access further, Hinshaw said health officials are “trying to balance the needs of patients… with limiting infection.”
On Wednesday evening, Alberta Health Services tweeted that effective immediately, hospitals in the province will only allow one visitor at a time in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and to protect patients.
AHS added that children will no longer be allowed to visit hospitals because they may not show COVID-19 symptoms, which presents an extra degree of risk to hospital staff and patients. However, the authority said exceptions to that rule will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
These restrictions are in addition to visits being barred from people who are feeling unwell, have a compromised immune system, are in self-isolation for COVID-19 or are being tested for COVID-19.
Kenney said experts that his government is consulting with are projecting that the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta will peak in about four to five weeks.
“Let’s hope the aggressive social distancing measures we’ve implemented to date prove to be extraordinarily effective. Let’s hope we reach the peak earlier and it affects fewer people than we are projecting.
“But to be realistic, based on the velocity of this disease around the world, we can expect this to pose a very real threat to public safety for at least the next two or three months.”
Kenney takes more steps to helps Albertans struggling in economy facing ‘profound adversity’
In the Alberta legislature on Wednesday, Kenney delivered a speech to MLAs in which he underscored how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been for the province’s already battered economy.
“We are facing a period of profound adversity,” he said, adding it had been nearly a century since Alberta’s economy has faced such staggering challenges.
He noted the price of West Texas Intermediate oil had dropped to $21 per barrel and that Western Canadian Select was at $9 and could plunge even lower.
“Albertans are doing their part to keep each other safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the premier said in a news release. “We are doing ours by assisting Albertans and their families, protecting jobs and supporting workers and employers.
“We will help shelter Albertans from the economic disruption of COVID-19 now, and position Alberta’s industry and businesses to bounce back when the situation stabilizes.
“This is an initial set of measures, and more will follow in the days to come.”
Kenney announced his government will make $50 million available for “emergency isolation support,” a temporary program through which working, adult citizens “who must self-isolate because they meet the government of Alberta’s published criteria for self-isolation” can apply for a one-time payment until federal emergency payments are sent out next month.
The Alberta government said the payments will be $573 per week for the two weeks between now and when the federal benefits kick in, for a total of $1,146.
Kenney said those who feel they may qualify can apply on alberta.ca next week and that a payment will be deposited into their accounts soon after if they are approved.
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Kenney also announced utility protection for citizens and businesses, meaning they can defer bill payments for 90 days without having essential services cut off. He said that step covers electricity and natural gas and that he is pushing municipalities to take similar action for water bills.
Students will be able to take advantage of a six-month, interest-free moratorium on provincial student loan payments, the government announced. This measure is aimed at students already in the process of paying loans off.
Personal banking customers at ATB Financial will be able to apply for up to six months of deferrals on loans with that institution as well as mortgages.
People who bank with Alberta credit unions will be able to access programs and initiatives aimed at solving loan payment and cash flow issues resulting from the health crisis.
Meanwhile, Kenney said his government will defer the collection of corporate income tax balances and instalment payments (due after Wednesday) until Aug. 31. He said this measure would free up about $1.5 billion for companies grappling with how to deal with the financial fallout of the pandemic. The premier said individual Albertans will also be able to defer provincial income taxes.
Before Wednesday, Alberta’s UCP government had already announced $500 million in supplemental health-care funding to help those on the front lines deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government had also earlier pledged to spend $60 million “to support seniors and other vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” This is in addition to community and social services funds allocated in the most recent budget.
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley responded to Kenney’s speech and said she was pleased to see some of the steps the premier was taking. She noted she was still concerned about elements of the budget passed on Tuesday, especially the level of health funding it includes.
Notley said even with mortgage deferrals and utility protection, many Albertans will struggle in the coming months. She also noted the province would need to take further action to diversify its economy to help strengthen it.
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.