EDMONTON — On the same day the Alberta government announced a pilot project for testing international travellers for COVID-19, the province’s top doctor announced further restrictions on non-urgent surgeries in the Edmonton region as record-breaking COVID-19 numbers put added pressures on the health-care system.
Earlier on Thursday, a joint announcement between the Alberta and federal governments, laid out a plan for travellers at the Calgary airport and a southern Alberta border crossing, which would see people tested at the border and, should they test negative, not have to submit to a 14-day quarantine — provided they test negative again in six or seven days.
“This new pilot program will allow those who need to travel for work to have a safe path to a shorter quarantine period,” said Premier Jason Kenney in a statement.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has reached into the highest levels of the provincial government, with Kenney in self-isolation — though he has tested negative — following contact with Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, who tested positive for COVID-19; one other minister and three United Conservative Party MLAs are also self-isolating because they came into contact with positive cases.
On Thursday, the province reported 427 new cases — a record since the pandemic began. There are now 3,519 active cases in the province.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said a source of the spike the province is seeing now is Thanksgiving.
“We definitely have seen an impact from Thanksgiving gatherings,” she said at an update on Thursday afternoon.
The government is closely watching hospitalization rates, and on Tuesday, at her last update, she said Alberta was in a “danger zone.” Pressure on the medical system, including beds taken up by sick patients and health-care workers being in quarantine, led Alberta Health Services to restrict non-urgent surgeries and some medical visits on Thursday.
Premier Jason Kenney isolating after Alberta municipal affairs minister tests positive for COVID-19
All reasonable COVID-19 precautions taken during livestreamed meeting with Erin O'Toole: Kenney
Eighteen people are in ICU, which is roughly 26 per cent of the 70 ICU beds set aside for COVID-19. In total, 112 people are in hospital.
“This is something that we continue to watch very closely,” Hinshaw said.
While individual municipalities have introduced mandatory mask policies, most provincial restrictions are voluntary, such as the suggestion for the Edmonton region that people not have gatherings of more than 15 people.
Hinshaw said the rise in Calgary is “concerning,” but no decisions have yet been made on further voluntary measures.
Updated numbers from the federal government indicate that Alberta has had the third-most cases of COVID-19 in the country. Ontario and Quebec are substantially ahead, with 66,686 and 96,288 cases respectively, compared with 23,400 cases in total in Alberta.
But it’s the daily case counts in Alberta that are now shattering records: Wednesday was the first day the province recorded more than 400 new cases in a day.
The highest number of confirmed new cases are among those aged 20 to 39; the average age is 36, and the average age of those hospitalized is 62. The average age of death from COVID-19 in Alberta is 82.
No one has yet found an approach that seems to work really well
Hinshaw said the province has been working with its communications team to come up with strategies to reach younger Albertans.
“We’re wanting to make sure that we think about how best to communicate that goes beyond simply saying ‘don’t get together with friends,'” she said. “No one has yet found an approach that seems to work really well.”
More than 1,300 of the active COVID-19 cases in the province come from a close contact; the other big cohort of cases, also around 1,300, are of “unknown” provenance. The next biggest chunk, more than 600 cases, are linked to outbreaks.
There have been several large, event-related outbreaks recently, such as a wedding where 49 people caught COVID-19. There were only 63 people at the wedding, HInshaw said.
Tim Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, said adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations is becoming harder due to general complacency, COVID fatigue, and general misinformation.
“People have to understand that these very straightforward strategies — physical distancing, being responsible when you have symptoms, wearing a mask — are what is needed if we are going to defeat it,” he said. “Getting that message across consistently in a way that gets traction is becoming increasingly difficult as the pandemic rolls on.”
• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: tylerrdawson