Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Thursday that gathering restrictions currently in place, banning groups of 15 or more, also apply to all one-time or annual summer events, including arts and culture festivals, agricultural fairs and rodeos, major sporting championships and industry conferences.
The orders in place prohibit gatherings of 15 or more people. They also require people gathered in groups of fewer than 15 to maintain a distance of two metres from one another.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that means summer events and festivals across Alberta will have to be cancelled.
She said many event organizers have already decided to cancel or postpone, but she hoped this announcement would provide clarity to others waiting on her direction.
The province said, by clarifying these restrictions now, organizers can “provide advance notice of 60 days or more that may help them limit unrecoverable expenditures, and cancel contracts in a timely manner.”
Hinshaw said the mass gathering rule would be reassessed in the fall, but wouldn’t say exactly when.
“I know summer festivals and events are incredibly important for many people,” she said.
“This decision was not made lightly. But we must do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Hinshaw explained that events like festivals and concerts can act as “super-spreaders,” where “one sick person can expose many others to the virus — spreading COVID-19 across households, communities and even large geographical distances.”
“A single case of COVID-19 can spread like wildfire in groups.”
She reiterated that the mass gathering rules apply to the outdoors as well. People cannot gather in groups larger than 15 and in groups smaller than 15, everyone must maintain physical separation of at least six feet.
“Albertans are prohibited from attending any event that would violate these orders,” Hinshaw said.
These restrictions will continue to apply until evidence demonstrates that the spread is controlled, Alberta Health said.
Hinshaw also advised people to avoid visiting summer homes and any non-essential travel.
“I know this is incredibly disappointing. We all look forward to summer,” Hinshaw said.
“This virus has taken many things from us and this is another loss to absorb.”
Hinshaw said there are still activities Albertans can enjoy safely outside, including walks and gardening.
Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers
Alberta Health announced 319 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, bringing the provincial total to 3,720.
“One of the new cases we are reporting today occurred in a worker from Sofina Foods in the Calgary zone,” Hinshaw said. “To date, this is the only identified case at this plant so it is not considered an outbreak.
“AHS is working with the plant to ensure that prevention measures are in place and plant operations have slowed due to the number of staff currently on isolation. AHS is offering testing to all employees, even those without symptoms.”
Two more people have died from the virus.
“These two additional deaths are the ones that I mentioned yesterday with respect to Brooks, which have now both been confirmed as cases of COVID-19,” Hinshaw said. One death was an employee at JBS Foods and the other was a household contact of an employee.
“My sincere condolences go out to everyone grieving the loss of a loved one.”
Alberta has recorded a total of 68 COVID-19 fatalities.
Of the total cases, 1,357 have recovered, Hinshaw said.
There are currently 72 people in hospital, 18 of whom have been admitted to intensive care units. Alberta Health said 313 cases are suspected of being community acquired.
Hinshaw said her greatest concerns are the outbreaks in continuing care centres – where there are now 390 confirmed cases – and the outbreaks at the meat plants in High River and Brooks.
There are now 480 confirmed cases at the Cargill plant and 124 confirmed cases in employees and contractors at the JBS Foods plant in Brooks.
“I know these numbers can be alarming,” Hinshaw said. “We are working to ensure that every outbreak has aggressive intervention as soon as it is identified so that it can end as soon as possible.
“I want to assure Albertans that these aggressive outbreak measures are being implemented and they are effective.”
“Unfortunately, the long incubation period of COVID-19 means we will continue to see new cases in the days ahead, as exposures that happened before outbreak measures were put in place can continue to result in new cases for up to two weeks,” she explained.
“These outbreaks are a painful reminder of the ability of COVID-19 to spread rapidly when given the chance.”
App to help with contact tracing
Hinshaw announced Thursday that Alberta was in the final testing phase of a contact-tracing app.
“This mobile app will be completely voluntary and will speed up the contact tracing that health officials undertake when someone tests positive for the virus.”
The app will use Bluetooth to note if the user has come in to contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, she explained. It will be called AB TraceTogether.
“The app does not track Albertans’ geographic locations.”
Hinshaw said these apps have already been used effectively in Singapore and South Korea.
She said the team has been in touch with the privacy commissioner about the app and it will likely be available in the coming weeks.
In a post on its website, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta said it received an overview of the program earlier in April but has not received detailed information.
“The government of Alberta has committed to providing a privacy impact assessment on this initiative, and we look forward to reviewing it when it is received,” Commissioner Jill Clayton said in a statement.
“As this app is rolled out, it will be important for the government of Alberta to provide Albertans with a clear, easy-to-understand description of privacy practices.
“Knowing in plain language what types of personal information may be collected, how that information will be used and in what circumstances it will be disclosed will assist people in choosing to opt-in to using the app.”
Streamlining PPE requests
Hinshaw also said Alberta Health Service developed an easier approach to making sure personal protective equipment is available to all health workers, including specialists and community doctors.
She said community specialists can now order PPE through their AHS zone’s point of contact.