Alberta expanding testing, particularly in Calgary, as province’s total COVID-19 cases climb to 1,423

WATCH ABOVE: Some videos from a news conference on Wednesday during which officials spoke about Alberta's response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health announced Wednesday that the province is taking steps to further expand COVID-19 testing, particularly in Calgary, as three more people in the province died of the disease.

“We are making some additional changes to our testing criteria to ensure that we have as much information as possible and to understand how our outbreak is unfolding,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton. “Even with the recent addition to our testing eligibility to include seniors 65 years of age and older with symptoms, our daily testing numbers are still lower than our labs have the capacity to test.

“Therefore, we are looking at our data to determine where to strategically use testing capacity.”

Hinshaw said data shows Calgary has had a higher per cent positive rate in their lab testing and that “this has persisted, even with the change in our testing this last week.”

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“In order to get as much information as possible to reduce spread in that area, we are expanding testing effective immediately to include all residents of the Calgary Zone who have a cough, fever, runny nose, sore throat or shortness of breath,” she said.

“We are also opening testing to essential service workers across the province with any of the same symptoms… and we’re defining that as anyone whose work site has not been closed to public access or public health orders, and who if they were well, would currently be working outside the home.”

Hinshaw said any Albertan with these symptoms who lives with a person 65 or older is also eligible for testing. She added that anyone who fits this description should use the province’s online assessment tool to kickstart the process that leads to getting tested.

Hinshaw noted that anyone who uses the online assessment tool does not need to also call Health Link.

COVID-19 death toll rising in Alberta

The new testing protocol was being put into place on the same day the province announced Alberta’s death toll from the pandemic has reached 29. Of the three new deaths recorded over the past 24 hours, the government said all were from the Calgary zone, bringing the total there to 20. One of those deaths was linked to the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre, where several COVID-19 deaths have already been reported.

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Since the health crisis began, four people have died in the Edmonton zone, four in the North zone and one in the Central zone.

“Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected,” Kenney said at a news conference in Edmonton on Wednesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, the government said the province has recorded 50 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the past 24 hours, bringing the total case number to 1,423. Of those cases, 519 people have now recovered.

Of the 1,423 total cases, 206 are suspected of being community-acquired.

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“Stronger outbreak measures have been put in place at continuing care facilities,” Alberta Health said in a news release. “To date, 145 cases have been confirmed at these facilities.”

Of the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 860 are in the Calgary zone, 368 are in the Edmonton zone, 95 are in the North zone, 72 are in the Central zone, 26 are in the South zone and two cases are in zones yet to be confirmed.

Kenney said 44 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19 in the province, with 16 of those in intensive care. He said his thoughts go out to all of those receiving critical care, including a good friend of his whom he said has been in intensive care for three weeks now. The premier said his friend was one of the first people in the province confirmed to have been infected.

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In total, Alberta has completed 68,762 COVID-19 tests. Alberta Health said Wednesday that there were 1,645 tests completed in the last 24 hours.

COVID-19 modelling being done in Alberta

On Wednesday, provincial officials also revealed more extensive modelling numbers pertaining to the pandemic.

READ MORE: Alberta data showing up to 3,100 deaths prompts province to increase beds, ventilators

In a special televised address on Tuesday night, Kenney told Albertans that modelling shows a probable scenario could see anywhere between 400 to 3,100 people die in the province of COVID-19 before the end of summer. In what he called an “elevated scenario,” the number of deaths could go as high as 6,600 in the same time period.

On Wednesday, Kenney reminded Albertans that modelling scenarios “should not be seen as concrete predictions.” He said the situation remains fluid and that modelling could change going forward in the crisis.

“Modelling is an estimate based on the best-known data at the time,” Hinshaw told reporters on Wednesday. “But we will continue to adjust it… you will see the model evolve over time.”

Hinshaw added that Albertans’ behaviour and how well they obey public health orders and follow public health recommendations will have a major impact on the province’s COVID-19 numbers and that “this cannot be stressed enough.”

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READ MORE: ‘Probable’ Alberta COVID-19 model predicts 400-3,100 deaths: Kenney

On Tuesday, the premier said he believes public health measures meant to contain the spread of COVID-19 will need to remain in place until at least the end of May. He also announced plans for relaunching the economy down the road while simultaneously not taking any chances with the coronavirus pandemic.

Hinshaw reminded Albertans that it is imperative they do not ease up on social distancing during upcoming religious holidays.

“This is our new normal for right now,” she said. “The measures will only be eased when the data indicates it is safe to do so.

Hinshaw added that she believes the coming weeks will be “critical” in terms of how Alberta fares in the pandemic.

“This is in our hands and we can do this together,” she said.

Premier warns Albertans to brace for pandemic’s further impact to economy

A day after unveiling his government’s plans to “relaunch” the economy once the COVID-19 outbreak peaks in Alberta, Kenney spoke more on Wednesday about how devastating the public health crisis has been from a financial perspective.

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“The unemployment stats for March will be released tomorrow and they’re going to be really bad,” he told reporters. “I would not be surprised if it’s the worst job numbers that we’ve seen in 80 years.

“This is why last night I said I’m not going to sugarcoat any of this. We’ve got to treat everybody as grownups. They’ve got to know what’s coming at us. We’re trying to present the most realistic numbers we can on the pandemic and a real sense of where the economy is going.”

Kenney noted how Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have had relative success compared to others in protecting their economies and that he hopes to borrow some of those nations’ ideas on how to do that.

READ MORE: A closer look at Alberta’s relaunch strategy

The Alberta government’s “Relaunch Strategy” is exploring ideas like mass testing for COVID-19, more intensive tracing of close contacts of those who are infected, a “much more rigorous approach” to screening and quarantining international arrivals at the province’s airports, using technology to help enforce quarantine orders and encouraging and facilitating the use of masks in crowded public spaces.

Earlier this week, Kenney said he believes the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will “be the most challenging period in our economy in relative terms since the Great Depression.”

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READ MORE: Jason Kenney predicts unemployment in Alberta could rise to 25% amid COVID-19 <;

“I fully expect unemployment in Alberta to be at least 25 per cent – at least half a million unemployed Albertans – and it could be significantly higher than that,” Kenney told an online conference of oil and gas leaders Tuesday.

–With a file from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett


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