Seven more people died due to COVID-19 since Friday, and additional public health measures are being introduced immediately, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health reported on Monday.
Four of the people who died over the weekend were from the Edmonton zone. A woman in her 70s who was linked to the outbreak at Extendicare Eaux Claire, a man in his 100s who was connected to the outbreak at Millwoods Shepherds Care Centre, a woman in her 80s linked to the outbreak at Capital Care Lynwood and a man in his 80s linked to the Edmonton General Care Centre have all died.
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The other three deaths were in the Calgary zone. Two of the people were linked to continuing care outbreaks: a man in his 80s linked to the Agecare Skypointe and a man in his 70s who was linked to the outbreak at Spruce Lodge.
The seventh death was a man in his 60s who wasn’t linked to continuing care.
Alberta’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 307.
“This is a heartbreaking number,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
Over the weekend, Alberta confirmed another 1,440 cases of COVID-19.
There were 364 cases confirmed on Friday, 572 cases confirmed on Saturday and 504 cases confirmed on Sunday.
As of Monday, there were 118 people in hospital, with 16 of those in the ICU.
Though the trigger the province has been watching before introducing new public health measures has not been met, Hinshaw introduced new public health measures for both the city of Edmonton and the city of Calgary.
“We have now crossed a tipping point and are losing the balance we have been seeking,” she said.
Effective immediately, a mandatory 15-person limit has been introduced again for all social gatherings.
This applies to gatherings like dinner parties, birthday parties, social events and wedding and funeral receptions.
“These social gatherings tend to be less structured and can struggle to implement key measures like physical distancing and hand washing to reduce the risks of exposure,” Hinshaw said.
It does not apply to structured events like ordinary dining in restaurants, theatres, worship services, or wedding and funeral ceremonies.
These restrictions are in place for one month and will be reviewed at that time. According to Hinshaw, they can be lifted if the growth rate, or “R value,” declines below one and new case numbers are consistently below 100 in each city.
“My sincere hope is we will see cases decline significantly enough to reassess this approach and lift within this one month time,” Hinshaw said.
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There is a $1,000 fine that can be levied if someone is in contravention of the social gathering limitation in those two cities.
Hinshaw said public health measures like distancing, mask wearing if distancing is not possible, hand washing and staying home if sick need to apply to all gatherings, not just ones under the 15 person limit.
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The other two voluntary measures that were put in place for Edmonton on Oct. 8 are now also in effect in Calgary.
“When we look at Calgary, the spread is reminiscent of where Edmonton was at several weeks ago,” Hinshaw said.
“Without additional measures being taken, we risk seeing a similarly sharp rise in Calgary, not just of cases, but also of hospitalizations which would potentially impact our health system and its ability to meet Calgarians’ needs.”
All workplaces in Calgary are now strongly advised to have everyone at work wear a mask unless they are in an office or cubicle, can safely distance, or a barrier is installed.
As well, everyone in Calgary is asked to reduce their number of cohorts to three – a household cohort that can also include a select group of people who only see each other, a school cohort and one additional social, sport or other cohort.
Young children in child care can continue to be in a child-care cohort, Hinshaw said, because this type of cohort has not been seen to be a high risk for spread.
Hinshaw also recommended communities around Edmonton begin to follow the voluntary health guidelines introduced on Oct. 8. There are no additional recommendations for communities around Calgary at this time.
“Alberta, we have a challenge.”
After the voluntary measures were put in place in Edmonton, the rate of growth of COVID-19 had dropped to 1.13, Hinshaw said. Since then, it has risen again.
Over the last two weeks in Edmonton and Calgary, social gatherings made up 15 per cent of all outbreaks, but almost 1/3 of all outbreak-related cases. Workplaces made up about 15 per cent of all outbreaks and outbreak cases.
Over the weekend, the province conducted more than 46,000 COVID-19 tests. In both Edmonton and Calgary, the positivity rate has grown to more than four per cent.
Changes to notification of COVID-19 results at events
With the dramatic rise in cases over the weekend, pressure is being put on key elements of Alberta’s COVID-19 response, like contact tracing, Hinshaw said.
Though Alberta Health Services is actively working to add more contact tracers to its team of 800, Hinshaw said the increase in numbers is causing a delay in notifying possible close contacts of someone who has tested positive.
That means, effective Monday, AHS will be contacting the organizer of an event if someone who tests positive for COVID-19 attended while infectious.
AHS will provide the organizer with a written notification that they will be required to send to all attendees within 24 hours.
If the organizer doesn’t think they can do that, AHS will continue to make phone calls to everyone who attended.
AHS will continue to directly contact anyone who was a close contact of cases who were exposed outside of any public or private event, as well as contacting anyone who tests positive.
“This change will improve the efficiency of the close contact notification process for events that pose a risk of rapid spread of illness, such as sports tournaments, weddings, church socials and other gatherings of 10 or more people,” AHS said in a news release.
Hinshaw pleads for respectful discourse in COVID-19 discussions
As cases surge, Hinshaw is asking all Albertans to continue to listen to all sides, but to strive for a difficult, but necessary balance.
Hinshaw pointed to “increasingly… polarizing narratives” in the province where one side says to drive the cases to zero no matter what restrictions are needed, while the other says it’s a mild flu and Alberta should just let it spread freely in an effort to achieve herd immunity.
“We are not well served by false dichotomies or by any positions that make it harder to have the respectful dialogue that a complex, wicked problem like COVID-19 presents,” she said.
Hinshaw said it’s important to find the balance between introducing restrictions that slow the spread of COVID-19 and preventing Albertans from being negatively impacted in other ways.
“We cannot live in fear and terror of COVID-19 for months to come, yet also cannot abandon our efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities and to make sure the health system can continue meeting all Albertans’ health needs.”
On Monday, Hinshaw said there were active alerts or outbreaks in about 11 per cent of the province’s schools. There are currently 680 active cases and 101 schools have an outbreak. Of those, 39 are on the watch list with five or more cases.
To date, in-school transmission has occurred in 79 schools. Transmission was to only one more person in 45 of those cases, Hinshaw said.
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Hinshaw said these numbers show schools are not a main driver of transmission, but the rise in community transmission is resulting in more school exposures.
“These are significant numbers, but it is important to keep them in context. Just six per cent of all COVID cases in those aged five to 19 since Sept. 1, have been acquired at school.”
Hinshaw also announced Alberta will be reviewing and possibly revising the COVID-19 symptom list for school-aged children. Changes made in British Columbia and Ontario did not show an increase in transmission in schools, she said.
The province hopes to release that document soon.