Edmonton councillors heard an update on the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday at an Emergency Advisory Committee meeting.
Interim City Manager Adam Laughlin gave a presentation to council that outlined the increase in active COVID-19 cases in the Edmonton zone, how the city is planning for a widespread outbreak or possible second wave, compliance rates for the face-covering bylaw, City Hall relaunch and re-examining the face covering exemption card program.
Dr. Chris Sikora, Alberta Health Services Chief Medical Officer of Health for the Edmonton zone, answered councillors’ questions around Edmonton’s rates and mask effectiveness.
Laughlin pointed out that the risk of infection and the number of active cases has been rising in the last two weeks in Edmonton. The city was put on the province’s “watch” list last Friday, he added.
“Our infection rate for 100,000 population is 54.5,” Laughlin said.
There are currently 17 outbreaks, including at long-term care facilities, a church, commercial and industrial businesses and private gatherings.
“Outbreaks associated with community spread are concerning,” he said.
Administration is working with Alberta Health to understand why local rates are increasing and whether additional health measures or rule changes are required.
“It’s clear from the data that people have not fully adapted their social behaviour to have safe interactions,” Laughlin said.
5-level action plan
The city has a five-level process mapped out that will dictate certain actions and potential closures should the COVID-19 risk escalate.
Right now, the city is Level 1 or “limited risk.” The actions associated with that level are education, health and safety measures and face covering compliance.
Level 2 is “caution.” The actions associated with that level include restrictions/closures to city-owned facilities and altering the City of Edmonton staff return-to-work plan.
If Edmonton hits Level 3 (“restriction”), administration could look to legislative restriction on public spaces – both indoor and outdoor – public transportation, commercial and retail locations.
Level 4 is “emergency,” during which the city would have sole control of movement, control over goods, services or property, and would enact emergency powers to respond. Level 5 is “critical,” during which Edmonton would fall under a mandatory regional/provincial chief medical officer of health/Government of Alberta order.
No single metric triggers escalation and the threshold for progression includes a mix of indicators, including the spread of the virus, risk status and advice from the AHS/Pandemic Team, the city said.
As administration puts plans in place in case there is a wide-scale outbreak or second wave, it’s planning immediate, short- and long-term actions.
Since Edmonton was placed on Alberta Health’s “watch” status, the city has increased enforcement patrols, collected compliance rates, explored additional cleaning practices, increased emergency meeting frequency, and is planning for possible shut downs of facilities, if needed.
“We hope to never need to escalate the risk level,” Laughlin said, “but the city is ready should the situation change.”
Several communities within the city have higher rates of active cases than others. Laughlin said the escalation model allows city officials to enact changes or restrictions in certain areas where the risk is greater.
“This model gives us the flexibility that if we see a particular area and… it was on the basis of community spread, we can put in specific restrictions.”
“We can take more significant measures in a particular zone of the city.”
At the end of the meeting, the mayor put the challenge out to Edmontonians who are frustrated and tired that in order to get through this together and to get the virus back under control in the city, everyone needs to follow the health and safety measures brought in by health officials.
He said things like physical distancing, keeping gathering small, wearing masks and following good hand hygiene are “as critical as they were in March.”
Iveson said Edmontonians need to work together to hold each other accountable for these actions.
“I’m seeing that slip away. We need to take a big deep breath as a city, as a community and be there for each other again… and listen to experts — all things that worked at the beginning of this pandemic.”
Laughlin said the city has an ongoing awareness campaign that will target a younger demographic now — people between 20 and 40 years old who are more social and mobile and who have more cohort groups.
Face mask bylaw
The latest figures show overall compliance for Edmonton’s face-covering bylaw is 96 per cent.
Mask-wearing compliance in community and rec centres is 98.1 per cent, on transit it’s 95 per cent, in public spaces it’s 97 per cent, and in vehicle-for-hire cars it’s 86 per cent.
Laughlin said the city has been hearing more complaints about people not wearing adequate face coverings and people being denied service for not wearing a face mask.
Dr. Sikora was encouraged by the acceptance of this new behaviour that shows “Edmontonians care for one another.”
However, he said it’s really “too early to tell” how effective Edmonton’s face mask bylaw is, one month in.
Face covering exemption card
After ending its face mask exemption card program after just five days, the city continues to re-examine the issue of giving people who are medically unable to wear a face covering a way to display and explain that.
City staff are engaging with stakeholders and community groups about the reassessment of this program. The city is considering options to add more rigor/assurance to the approval process.
Dr. Sikora said exemption cards are difficult to implement.
In his presentation, Laughlin said the camp near ReMax Field currently has about 170 tents on site, some of which are vacant.
He said the city is working with Homeward Trust, Boyle Street and Bissel Centre on site, looking at solutions and essential infrastructure like showers.
The goal is to ensure a transition to permanent housing solutions.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Coun. Scott McKeen said.
He said the time has passed for talking about helping those struggling with homelessness and “we must do something now.”
“This is a catastrophe within a pandemic within a crisis,” McKeen said.
“I feel the same way,” Iveson said. “We have been trying methodically for a decade to meet people’s needs” with dignity, using a data-based approach “that we believe will save money.”
Until now, there’s not been enough support for a “housing first” plan from federal or provincial counterparts, Iveson said.
Iveson told reporters Edmonton needs “the same things we’ve been looking for for the last 10 years… units and funding for the supportive services to make sure people are successful in staying housed.”
Ottawa and Alberta could help with funding for construction or the acquisition of housing units for the Housing First program, the mayor said.
“Every jurisdiction that does it sees benefits… It’s a fiscal no-brainer.”
There is more urgency with winter coming and ongoing public health concerns with the pandemic, Iveson said, but now is a good time to buy housing units.
Last week, the mayor said he was concerned with the upward trend of active COVID-19 cases in Edmonton.
“I am concerned as mayor. It’s disappointing because our performance has been so good up to this point. I think perhaps a false sense of security has built up… This is, as Dr. Hinshaw said, a serious wake up call for Edmontonians.”
Alberta confirmed an additional 108 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with a total of 1,158 active cases in the province and the majority still in the Edmonton zone. That zone has 589 active cases while there were 375 active cases reported in the Calgary zone.
On Thursday, there were 49 people in hospital, with seven of those people in the ICU.