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County of Warner sees spike in COVID-19 cases, possible link to funerals being investigated

The County of Warner has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, some of which may be linked to a funeral held for three teenage girls who died in a tragic boating accident.
The County of Warner has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, some of which may be linked to a funeral held for three teenage girls who died in a tragic boating accident. Global News

Until recently, the County of Warner in southern Alberta was a COVID-19 phenomenon; it’s home to Alberta’s largest border crossing between Canada and the U.S. and is home more than 3,500 people, yet no positive cases were reported.

Last week, the county reported one positive case. By Thursday, the numbers had risen to 22 active cases. They increased again Friday, to a total of 39.

County Reeve Randay Taylor said residents have been vigilant in following public health orders just as any other municipality, despite being coronavirus-free for months.

“It was a little disheartening, [though] not unexpected,” Tayor admitted, acknowledging they weren’t immune to the virus. “I think our sparsely populated areas is why we were able to stay negative for so long.”

Read more: Number of people ‘under investigation’ for possible COVID-19 on Siksika Nation has tripled

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Alberta Health said on Friday it’s investigating whether some of the cases could be linked to the funeral held for three teenage girls from a southern Alberta Hutterite colony who tragically drowned in the St. Mary River last month.

Read more: 2 teenage girls dead, search underway for 3rd missing in southern Alberta river

The three girls, identified as Naomi, Linda and Martha Waldner, were canoeing and swimming on June 10 when they “encountered difficulty” trying to get out of the water.

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The bodies of Linda and Martha were recovered the following day, and Naomi’s body was recovered from the river several days later.

Alberta Helath spokesperson Tom McMillan said the funeral for the girls had “strong community support for those affected by the loss.”

“It is possible that some COVID-19 exposure occurred at this funeral, and we are working on communication to all colonies in the Prairies to ensure heightened surveillance for COVID-19 symptoms and precautions to promote health safety,” McMillan said.

“This is similar to what we have done with other communities and groups.”

Read more: Alberta confirms 57 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday

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McMillan also said while the health department isn’t releasing details about specific locations of the cases, it’s believed they’re connected.

“The recent cases in County of Warner are all linked to known sources and stem largely from a small number of gatherings in large families or social groups,” he said.

“Contact tracing and testing is underway of anyone who may be at risk. There is no increased risk for the general public at this time.”

McMillan said the department is watching the increase closely.

Click to play video 'Alberta surge in COVID-19 test demand results in delayed response time' Alberta surge in COVID-19 test demand results in delayed response time
Alberta surge in COVID-19 test demand results in delayed response time

Jamie Anderson, the director of emergency management with the County of Warner, said the communities within the county worked together to formulate a proper response to COVID-19 under the guidance of Alberta Health Services.

The County of Warner has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in the last week.
The County of Warner has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases in the last week. Global News

However, the low population density was a possible hindrance to their ability to spread information.

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“We do have some challenges throughout the county in terms of communications,” she said.

“We are very rural, [so] we have farms and homesteads in different corners of the county that are a little bit more difficult to connect to.”