Under a probable scenario, COVID-19 could claim between 400 to 3,100 Albertans’ lives by the end of summer, Premier Jason Kenney announced in a televised address to the province on Tuesday night.
He also said under this scenario, the province could see as many as 800,000 total infections in that time frame.
The numbers are based on modelling done by Alberta Health around the coronavirus pandemic and the premier said officials also prepared a model for an “elevated scenario.”
“Under the more serious but less likely ‘elevated scenario,’ we would see infections peak at the beginning of May, with as many as one-million infections, and between 500 and 6,600 deaths,” Kenney said in the stark address.
Kenney noted that experts with whom his government has consulted project that if Alberta had no social distancing and public health orders in place, “we could experience as many as 1.6 million infections, and 32,000 deaths in Alberta — as many as 640 deaths per day.”
“Our health system would collapse under the chaos of that scenario,” the premier said.
As of Tuesday evening, Alberta has seen 1,373 people test positive for COVID-19 — and 26 of those cases have resulted in fatalities.
“Our hearts go out to the loved ones of all of those lost,” Kenney said.
READ MORE: Alberta sees 2 more deaths from COVID-19
“I will not sugar coat it,” the premier told Albertans before revealing what the modelling has suggested could happen. “You need to know what we are up against.”
After disclosing the modelling completed by health officials, Kenney acknowledged that “these numbers can be overwhelming.”
“But these models are not a done deal,” he noted. “I want Albertans to see them as a challenge — perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation.
“Those numbers are not inevitable. How this actually plays out — how many people are infected, how many die, whether we overwhelm our health-care system — all of that depends on us and our choices.”
Kenney reminded Albertans about the importance of following public health rules and guidelines around handwashing, covering up coughs and sneezes, social distancing and practising self-isolation in cases where that is necessary.
The premier also promised to “spare no expense to prevent the spread, while providing the best possible care to those who need it.”
Following Kenney’s speech, the premier’s press secretary provided more context for the figures that health officials landed on when preparing COVID-19 models.
“The numbers reported by countries are their detected cases who are tested or go to hospital,” Christine Myatt said in an email.
“These are the tip of the iceberg. Alberta’s modelling estimates the total cases we may see in Alberta — total cases are the entire iceberg — both those that are tested and diagnosed, and those that have mild illness and would never be detected.
COVID-19 testing in Alberta
In his address, Kenney acknowledged that Alberta’s per capita number of recorded infections is second only to Quebec among Canadian provinces.
“But that is in part because our brilliant scientists and lab technicians are conducting one the highest levels of COVID-19 testing in the world, so naturally we identify more positive cases,” he said, adding that the rate of Alberta who are hospitalized or admitted into intensive care units because of COVID-19 is “much lower than the other large provinces.”
“However, those provinces saw their first cases before we did, so we might still catch up to their numbers,” he said. “You’ve probably heard about the curve of infections. That’s the rate at which infections grow in a country or region. I’m glad to report that the curve in Alberta is much lower than many other parts of the world.
“So far, our curve more closely resembles countries that have successfully fought the virus, like South Korea, than the sharp upward rise seen in countries like Italy, Spain and the United States.”
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Kenney reiterated, however, that things could get much worse if Albertans aren’t consistent about following public health orders and recommendations.
Alberta facing economic turmoil
In his remarks to Albertans, Kenney said the novel coronavirus pandemic is just one of three crises facing the province, the other two being the staggering fall in global energy prices in recent weeks and the other being “the shutdown of much of the economy here and around the world, leading to a deep global recession.”
READ MORE: Patience running short for federal energy industry aid, Alberta minister says
“All of this follows five years of economic fragility for our province,” he said. “Faced with this triple threat, our job is to save both lives and livelihoods.
“Our first priority is protecting the health of Albertans. At the same time, the huge damage to our economy — to livelihoods — is also having a real impact on the health and well-being of Albertans.
“We cannot focus on either the pandemic or the economy. The two are intertwined.”
Kenney added that the more governments do right away to stop the pandemic, the more quickly economies can be restarted and economic recoveries can begin.
The premier acknowledged the hardships facing Albertans and both small and large businesses.
“I want this to end as soon as you do,” he said. “But we simply cannot risk letting the virus loose in Alberta. That would create a public health catastrophe, which would force an even more stringent lockdown in the future, leaving our economy even further battered.”
Kenney said the measures are likely to stay in place at least until the end of May.
“As hard as this will be, it is the only ethical choice when thousands of lives are still at stake.”
Kenney said his government plans to roll out its “Relaunch Strategy” once COVID-19 peaks in the province, calling it “our plan gradually to open up our economy while preventing a second wave of the virus.”
He said the plan involves “an aggressive system of mass testing” and using new tests that are being developed and approved to identify positive cases and those with immunity more quickly.
“Our plan is for Alberta to turn around as many as 20,000 tests a day. We are determined to continue leading the world in testing, the foundation of our Relaunch Strategy,” he said.
The plan also involves “more precise tracing of close contacts of those who are infected” and “strong border screening.”
“I believe it was a mistake for Canada to wait so long to close our borders, especially from countries with high levels of infection,” he said. “While Alberta does not control who can fly here, we will deploy a much more rigorous approach than the federal government has in screening and quarantining international arrivals.
“We will strictly enforce quarantine orders to ensure compliance, including using technology like smart phone apps when appropriate.”
The plan will also see the government “encourage and facilitate the use of masks in crowded public spaces, like mass transit.”
As for Alberta oil, Kenney said “there is a very real possibility that, as global inventories overflow, our energy will hit negative prices.”
“I cannot overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, the economy, and the financial security of Albertans,” he said. “Much of this is due to the COVID-19 recession, but it has been made worse by a predatory price war led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are trying permanently to damage North America’s energy industry.
“That is why we have begun discussions with U.S. leaders about a co-ordinated defence of North American energy independence to protect us from the reckless actions of those regimes.”
Kenney added this is also why his government is investing in the Keystone XL pipeline.
“We will do more, including a huge new investment in job-creating infrastructure projects,” he said. “Together with a collapse in revenues, this will have an enormous impact on our province’s finances. Alberta’s budget deficit this year may triple from $7 billion to almost $20 billion.
“We will face a great fiscal reckoning in the future.”
Kenney acknowledged the anxiety that many Albertans are currently feeling but told them that the province has strong institutions “and a culture of resilience.”
“Most importantly, we have each other,” he said.
“We will get through this storm, together. Thank you, and God bless Alberta.”
Opposition reacts to Kenney’s address
Opposition and NDP Leader Rachel Notley held a brief news conference at the Alberta legislature shortly after Kenney’s address and said as troubling as the numbers may be, she wanted to reinforce some of the premier’s more hopeful comments.
“Our ability to keep these numbers low is within our power and forms a shared responsibility for all Albertans,” she told reporters. “We must follow the advice of public health officials.”
“This pandemic is hurting all of us,” she said, adding she wants the government to ensure the most vulnerable Albertans are protected and that it “spare no expense” to address what she called a staffing crisis at seniors’ centres.
She called on the government to ensure front-line health-care workers have all the personal protective equipment they need and suggested that Kenney reopen the emergency support payment program that ended Monday.
“We know this is beyond stressful,” she said of Albertans who have lost their job or business during the pandemic. “It’s incomparable.”
As for the government’s plan to eventually restart the economy, Notley said she hopes any rebuild revolves around an economy that is “truly diversified.”
Infectious disease expert reacts to Alberta’s COVID-19 modelling
Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, said increased testing could help future modelling accuracy.
He noted that testing more Albertans will help limit the chances of a second wave of the virus.
In analyzing Tuesday’s projections, Jenne said the models show that Alberta has done well at flattening the curve to the point where Alberta’s health-care system should be able to handle the peak of infection.
“If we prevented a few infections in the early stages, that will result in tens of thousands of prevented infections in the later stages, and as a result, fewer deaths,” he said.
–With files from Global News’ Michael King