Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta students who have chosen to learn in person will head back to class next week, as originally planned. All other COVID-19 public health measures that are in place will remain in place until at least Jan. 21, the premier added.
Kenney said Albertans and businesses will be given at least one week’s notice prior to any changes that will affect them, “so they have time plan.”
“In order to ensure we take into account the very real possibility of an increase in cases as a result of the holidays, and given the fact that our case numbers, hospitalizations and positivity rate for testing remains high, Alberta’s health measures will remain in effect for at least two more weeks,” Kenney said Thursday afternoon.
“That means that all Albertans, businesses, organizations, and service providers must continue to follow existing health measures until at least Jan. 21.”
“We still have not seen the impact of the recent holidays and we will be closely monitoring the spread over the coming weeks to determine whether it is safe to recommend beginning to relax our current approach,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw added.
“I know this has been a challenging last four weeks but we cannot relax our grip. We must stay the course.”
Current restrictions put in place in mid-December include a ban on in-person dining and limit grocery and retail stores to 15 per cent of their fire capacity. These restrictions, which went into place on Dec. 13, also forced the closure of personal services like gyms and hair salons.
Other measures, which ban both indoor and outdoor gatherings and mandate masks province-wide, were implemented on Dec. 8.
“I know this is particularly frustrating to hear all of this right now, when you’ve seen news stories about politicians and political staff travelling abroad,” Kenney said.
“I know that Albertans are angry because of the terrible judgement that many in government have shown. And they are right to be angry. I have heard Albertans loud and clear. After all of the terrible sacrifices that people have made for 10 months, it was insulting for government leaders to holiday outside of the country. Albertans said they wanted there to be consequences. I heard them and there have been serious consequences.”
The announcement regarding schools and restrictions came as Alberta reported 968 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, along with 24 additional deaths from the disease. Alberta’s death toll from COVID-19 has reached 1,217. (Additional daily COVID-19 data below).
Kenney first hinted that Alberta was not in a place right now to relax the current restrictions during a Facebook live address on Wednesday, citing high daily new cases and hospitalization rates.
“I’ve made it clear in the past that we have to balance the public health imperative of COVID off against all of the other impacts of restrictions, and that will inform our decisions going forward,” Kenney said Wednesday night.
Kenney used a graph to showcase the spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations since October, which have seen exponential growth. He pointed out that in mid-October, there were about 100 people in hospital with COVID-19. That number went “almost straight up to 650 about a month later,” Kenney said.
There were 871 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19 Thursday, 139 of whom were being treated in intensive care.
“We can manage that thanks to the great professionalism of our folks in the health-care system,” Kenney said.
“But we cannot manage, we could not manage continued exponential growth because once we were to hit like 2,000 or more COVID patients in hospitals, we have to cancel all surgeries that are not essential with massive damage to other people’s health. So tough measures had to be taken, sadly, and we said that the December measures that were brought into effect, I think on Dec. 14, we would assess those a month later and I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.”
Kenney added that he hopes to get back to a regionalized approach to COVID-19 restrictions, “as soon as the numbers are in the right space.”
“But right now, we continue to lead the country in per capita new cases, active cases, and I believe fatalities, daily fatalities as well. Not overall. We are still lower than the national average since March, but on a day-to-day basis, we are ahead of other provinces.”
Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist, told Global News now is not the time to lift restrictions, saying while Alberta has managed to slow the daily count number, that’s not enough.
“You have jumped out of an airplane. You’ve opened your parachute, the parachute has slowed your fall. Now you have to decide whether to take the parachute off or not,” he said.
“If you’re halfway to the ground and you take the parachute off, I think the result is going to be quite predictable. Most people would say you should keep the parachute on until you hit the ground.”
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, said her preference would be for the current restrictions to remain in place for at least another four weeks.
“Then we would be beyond the Christmas, New Year’s period and I think we have a much better idea of trends and numbers,” she said, adding there was a dip over the holidays that could be due to not as many people being tested.
“At this point in time, and our numbers haven’t gone up, but I would like to see that trend continuing or at least a slight decrease in numbers before government decides to ease restrictions.”
Ontario made the decision Thursday to keep schools closed to in-person learning until Jan. 25.
Kenney said the decision to stick with Alberta’s original back-to-school plan announced in December was “based on carefully considering the importance of attending school in-person, as well as the latest evidence of cases dropping in all school-related age groups in December.”
“Schools play, of course, a key role in supporting student learning, as well as their emotional health, mental health and overall well-being,” Kenney said.
Kenney said that between September and winter break, 0.4 per cent of all Alberta students and school staff tested positive for COVID-19.
Hinshaw added that in-school transmission was not the main driver for cases in the school population. Analysis of all of the COVID-19 cases in school-aged children found that about six per cent of all cases were acquired at school, she added.
“This is further supported by the observation in December, that although elementary-aged children remained in school in person, their age-specific case rates – which had previously been rising – dropped in an identical way to older students after extracurricular activities and social gatherings were limited,” Hinshaw said.
“We are prioritizing school return next week while keeping these other restrictions in place as these other activities seem to have been a much more important driver of spread.”
The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association is concerned that kids heading back to class next week puts “students, teachers and their families in the exact same situation they were in when they had classes pivot to online at the end of November.”
Jason Schilling said the ATA would like to see more support for schools from the government. He would like to see support for teachers in the classroom, who he says are spending a lot of time ensuring health protocols are followed. He would also like to see more support for students with the hiring of education assistants, and more help with contact tracing.
“The association has put forward very reasonable and attainable action items that we could put into place to make schools safer and to strengthen the plan we have going back into schools,” Schilling said.
“The government has not acted on any of those suggestions we put forward and I would like to see that happen. We want schools to stay open. Teachers want to be in the building with their students… and we need to find a way to make it safer for everybody.
“Especially as we’re doing this yo-yo of online versus in-class and going back and forth. We know it’s hard for some of our students and they’re struggling to keep up with their studies.”
Schilling said sending students home to isolate for two weeks can be challenging for families.
“They don’t always have the same access to technology and WIFI. They’re not always able to engage when they’re at home as well as they can at school.”
Kenney said the province will continue to make changes as necessary “to ensure there is a safe learning environment during the pandemic.”
Dr. James Kellner, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, said he believes a return to in-person learning in Alberta should be delayed given daily case rates remain high, as well as the number of severe outcomes.
“There’s plenty of reason to be concerned and I’m certainly concerned about the idea of having children return to the classroom as early as next week,” he said.
“Here in Alberta it’s somewhat leveled off, but leveled off at a very high level — far higher than it was in the autumn when schools first opened.”
Kellner, a parent himself, admitted it’s a difficult situation. He added he understands the challenges of leaving schools closed, including the children’s social development and mental health.
“With that in mind… I worry that if we open the schools too soon that it could lead to — instead of plateauing and gradually starting to go down — it could contribute to an exasperation of a prolonged second wave that we’re in.”
Daily COVID-19 data for Jan. 7
The 968 new cases came after about 14,833 tests, making for a 6.4 per cent positivity rate.
As of Thursday, there were 13,298 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta.
Kenney said the number of active cases in has dropped “pretty substantially” since the latest restrictions were announced in December, but said “we’re far from getting out of this.”
“COVID-19 does remain broadly spread across Alberta with few local exceptions,” he said. “Testing numbers did drop over the holidays, that was anticipated, but we saw a continued high positivity rate.
Kenney noted that between May and September, a “bad day” would see a two per cent positivity rate. Over the past week, Alberta has seen about a seven per cent positivity rate, he said.
Of the 24 deaths reported Thursday, 14 were in the Edmonton zone, nine were in the Calgary zone and one was in the Central zone.
The death in the Central zone was a man in his 50s with unknown comorbidities.
In the Edmonton zone, two deaths were linked to the outbreak at Chinese Seniors Lodge — both men in their 90s with comorbidities. Two deaths were linked to the outbreak at Kiwanis Place Lodge — a man in his 70s and a woman in her 80s. Both deaths included comorbidities. A woman in her 70s linked to the outbreak at Capital Care Lynnwood died. This case included comorbidities. A man in his 90s from Touchmark Wedgewood Assisted Living died. His case included comorbidities. A man in his 90s linked to the outbreak at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital also died. This case included comorbidities. A man in his 50s, a man in his 60s and four men in their 70s also died. All of these deaths included comorbidities. A man in his 60s from the Edmonton zone also passed and Alberta Health said comorbidities are not known.
In the Calgary zone, three deaths were linked to the outbreak at Revera Edgemont: a man in his 70s, a woman in her 80s and a woman in her 90s. All three deaths included comorbidities. Two deaths were linked to the outbreak at Bethany Riverview: a man in his 90s and a man in his 70s. Both cases included comorbidities. A man in his 90s linked to the outbreak at AgeCare Walden Heights died. His death involved comorbidities. A man in his 90s from Carewest Sarcee also passed. His death included comorbidities. Two women in their 70s from the Calgary zone died. One woman’s death included comorbidities and the comorbidities are unknown in the other woman’s death.
The premier said he will hold another media availability on Friday, this time to talk about COVID-19 vaccinations in Alberta.
As of Jan. 6, 33,864 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Alberta. Two “adverse events following immunization” have been reported to Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services. Details of those adverse events were not provided.
– With a file from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED