EDITOR’S NOTE: This article initially stated the province would offer a wage supplement of $2/hr for health-care aides during the pandemic. It should have clarified that the wage supplement would be for health-care aides at contracted continuing care facilities, as outlined in the government’s news release.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Monday that four more people died from the novel coronavirus, bringing the provincial death toll to 59.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said two of the fatalities were people in long-term care facilities (Manoir Du Lac and CareWest Sarcee), one was a worker at the Cargill meat-processing plant (a woman in her 60s) and the fourth was from the Edmonton zone (a man in his 70s).
Hinshaw said 105 new cases were confirmed in the last 24 hours, bringing Alberta’s total number of cases to 2,908.
She said 1,230 people had recovered from the virus.
Sixty-three people are in hospital and 15 of them are in intensive care units.
As of Monday, more than 105,000 tests for COVID-19 had been completed in Alberta. In the last 24 hours, 3,994 tests were completed.
Health aide funding
Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced additional funds to hire health-care aides and support continuing care centres.
He said “over the coming days,” Alberta would increase funding to hire additional staff, offer a wage supplement of $2/hr for health-care aides at contracted continuing care facilities during the pandemic and get up to 1,000 paid student practicum positions to fast-track certification and get more staff into the long-term care sites.
The wage supplement was also meant to help “alleviate the financial burden for those who normally work at several sites, but are now restricted to one site.”
Also, $24.5 million is being advanced to continuing care facility operators to help address immediate cost pressures of the pandemic.
Shandro said the pandemic is disproportionately affecting these seniors’ homes. In Alberta, there are 29 outbreaks at long-term care facilities, resulting in 330 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths connected to the virus.
“Health-care aides are integral to the well-being of residents – and they play a critical role across the health-care system,” Shandro said.
“We cannot overlook their contribution, and we must not lose sight of how the pressures they face can directly impact the functioning of entire facilities.
“We are confident that these measures will make a difference not only to health-care aides, but to the residents of these facilities who deserve quality and compassionate care.”
Hinshaw said the government’s funding would improve the mental and physical well-being of residents and staff at these facilities.
The Opposition was glad to see the additional support but says it came too late.
“I am relieved to see the government belatedly providing surge funding for continuing care facilities to hire staff and modest hazard pay for workers.
“But I am frustrated that it took two weeks of dithering from Jason Kenney and the UCP government to introduce these common-sense measures,” seniors and housing critic Lori Sigurdson said. “Our Official Opposition called for these actions on April 7.
“The UCP have failed to bring in another crucial measure, which is a centralized provincial plan for staffing continuing care facilities following dramatic losses due to coronavirus infection, self-isolation and the effects of the single-site employment order.”
Tracking COVID-19 outbreaks
Hinshaw spoke specifically about four sites currently dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks: the Cargill meat-processing plant, JBS Foods, Kearl Lake oilsands project and the Foothills Medical Centre.
She said there were 360 cases involving workers connected to the Cargill plant near High River, but there are also cases in the community. Hinshaw said 484 cases are linked to the plant but not all of those work at the site. She said there are cases of household spread, carpooling and secondary spread.
Many live in surrounding communities, like Calgary, she explained.
“There is a dedicated team working on reducing spread,” Hinshaw added. It will be helping households that may have issues with isolating.
The company announced Monday the plant would be “idling operations.”
There was also an outbreak at JBS Foods, Hinshaw said, where 67 cases have been confirmed.
There are 12 Alberta cases connected to the Kearl Lake oilsands project, she added, and eight cases in other provinces, including B.C. and Saskatchewan.
At Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, one more case has been confirmed.
“This does not change the assessment of risk” for patients at the maternity ward, Hinshaw said.
Starting Tuesday afternoon, Alberta Health will be publishing outbreak locations on its website. However, the postings will not include a number of cases since those numbers will be out of date quickly.
Continuing care and acute care sites, like Foothills Medical Centre, will be the first outbreak locations to be shared.
Over two weeks, other outbreak settings will be added once notification protocols have been established.
Personal protective equipment
Alberta Health Services’ chief program officer for contracting, procurement and supply management also spoke at Monday’s update.
Jitendra Prasad addressed concerns with the quality and fit of the masks being used by front-line workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prasad said AHS has heard the concerns about nose wires, how the masks fit, their size and smell from front-line staff.
He stressed all masks are tested before they’re brought in to ensure they meet clinical standards for health settings. The issues being raised are being worked on, Prasad said.
“We’ve already taken some of these steps to improve these masks… working with the manufacturer on nose clips… more material from nose to chin.
“We want to ensure all Albertans that all our PPE meet our safety standards.”
He explained that prior to the pandemic, Alberta used about 200,000 masks a week. Now, the burn rate is about 600,000 a day. The sole regular manufacturer cannot meet that demand, Prasad said, so Alberta is using alternate suppliers.
There is also a group dedicated to reviewing masks that come in and help direct them to appropriate areas of the health system.
Prasad also made reassurances about Alberta’s supply of PPE.
“At this point in time, we continue to have an adequate supply of PPE in Alberta.”
He said AHS is confident it has a stockpile of about 30 to 60 days’ worth.
The health minister also addressed concerns about Alberta sharing its supply with other provinces.
“All procedural masks which have been sent to other provinces were sourced from China,” he said. “Those same masks are being used in Alberta.
“The masks sourced for China are safe for use in Alberta and all other provinces… all products are tested before being ordered.”