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Questions raised about how Alberta released info about P.1 COVID-19 variant outbreaks

Click to play video: 'B.C., Alberta report outbreaks of P.1 variant' B.C., Alberta report outbreaks of P.1 variant
Cases of more contagious COVID-19 variants are surging across Canada, particularly in British Columbia and Alberta. As Heather Yourex-West reports, health officials say variants can even spread among people who've been vaccinated – Apr 5, 2021

The mayor of Edson, a town about two hours west of Edmonton, is expressing his frustration with how information about two major outbreaks of a COVID-19 variant in the province was handled by officials.

“To throw that kind of information out there without any kind of context, without any details – this is a large province,” Mayor Kevin Zahara said Tuesday. “When that came out, it could be anywhere.”

Read more: Alberta investigating 2 separate COVID-19 outbreaks involving P.1 variants

Albertans first learned of a P.1 variant outbreak through a tweet from Alberta’s chief medical officer of health on Saturday.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s tweet stated officials were “investigating a significant COVID-19 outbreak in Alberta involving P.1 variants of concern.”

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Despite requests from Global News over the weekend, the province wouldn’t provide further information about the outbreak, including where it was located or how many people may have been affected.

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Zahara said it was “highly irresponsible” of the government to release news of the variant outbreak without further information.

“My instant reaction was: ‘Oh that must be up in Athabasca because they have a huge ballooning case count. It wasn’t my community,'” he said.

“These variants pose very serious health concerns and, unfortunately, I feel the Alberta government is not providing the information that Albertans need to make informed decisions and to have confidence in the decisions that are being made.”

Read more: COVID-19 variants reducing hospital capacity, increasing ER wait times: Alberta doctor

On Monday, Hinshaw tweeted again with more information about the outbreak that affected the North and Central zones and about a second outbreak linked to a Calgary-based employer.

“Thanks for your patience,” Hinshaw tweeted Monday. “These investigations are complex and it’s important that we ensure information is accurate and that anyone at risk is directly contacted before sharing details. We also must balance the public desire for info with protecting patient confidentiality.”

But Zahara didn’t learn the outbreak was in his community from Hinshaw’s follow-up tweets; he learned from media that had sourced the information.

Read more: Alberta shuts down indoor dining, group fitness amid surging 3rd wave COVID-19, variant cases

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On Monday, Global News confirmed at least one of the outbreaks was linked to PTW Canada Ltd. On its website, the Calgary-based company says it provides “fabrication, construction and maintenance services” to customers.

As of Tuesday morning, Zahara said he had not heard from government officials on the situation in his town, though he had already spoken with his MLA.

“But they have not provided us any information regarding this P.1 outbreak, what we can do as a community, which I think is highly important. We’re in a small community so there’s lots of rumours and stories that are shared.”

On Tuesday afternoon, in a statement to 630 CHED, Alberta Health said it was meeting that day with the Town of Edson to discuss the outbreak.

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Spokesperson Tom McMillan said the ministry works to update municipal partners “regularly” and would alert them if there were increased public health risks due to an outbreak.

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“As with every outbreak, AHS works first with the cases and employer to directly contact anyone at risk of exposure and ensure they were offered testing and in quarantine,” McMillan said. “We take swift action to prevent future spread.”

According to the mayor, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Edson two weeks ago, but then it started seeing cases ramp up again.

“I have to make the assumption that this is related to that, but we’re talking about a two-week gap from when those cases started to now we have a large outbreak on our hands.

“How that affects our community is yet to be seen.”

Read more: Canadians share mixed feelings of joy, disappointment as COVID-19 vaccinations ramp-up

During her first update in four days, Hinshaw said Tuesday afternoon that health officials always have to balance the releasing of information that will allow Albertans to protect themselves with the privacy of those affected Albertans.

In this case, Hinshaw said the information was meant only to alert Albertans the P.1 variant had been detected in the province.
“We worked closely with those individuals who had been deemed close contacts so they have the information they need.”

Hinshaw said how quickly the outbreak spread shows how – even in communities with few to no confirmed cases of COVID-19 – Albertans need to follow the guidelines in place to reduce spread.

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“What we can learn from this outbreak is if we waited until there was a notification of a variant in a particular community to follow measures, then we see spread.

Hinshaw wouldn’t say where the traveller that started the outbreak returned from, but confirmed there have been cases of P.1 variant connected to people travelling back from ski resorts like Whistler.

The person related to this outbreak did not return from Whistler, she said.

– With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News

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