Check against delivery

Good afternoon.

Today, I’d like to provide an update on COVID-19 in the province, talk a bit about Alberta’s outbreak strategy and announce updated measures we are putting in place to balance the needs of continuing care residents against the need to prevent spread of COVID-19.

Based on 5,205 new test results over the last 24 hours, we have confirmed an additional 315 cases, bringing the total in Alberta to 5,165.

I’m pleased to report the number of recovered cases in Alberta has now reached 1,953.

Sadly, we have also confirmed 7 additional deaths. This means there have now been 87 deaths in our province.

All 7 deaths reported today come from long-term care facilities in Calgary, including six at Clifton Manor. I want to emphasize that this sad news is not a reflection of the work that has gone in to managing this outbreak at the site, where my local colleagues tell me that the site responded promptly, created an isolation ward and worked hard to prevent the spread.

Despite this, this shows the power of this virus in a closed environment.

My sympathy goes out to the friends and families of all these individuals, and all those who live and work at Clifton Manor and any other site that is experiencing and dealing with an outbreak right now.

There are now 503 cases in continuing care facilities across the province.

As of today, there have been 821 cases confirmed among workers at the Cargill meatpacking plant. There have also been 276 cases confirmed among employees and contractors at the JBS plant in Brooks.

We have taken every outbreak seriously and have used our fundamental outbreak control principles to limit spread in settings of concern.

We have also continuously refined our strategy to identify and respond to outbreaks based on new learnings about this virus as new information becomes available.

Effective outbreak control depends on close coordination between multiple partners. To be successful, our outbreak strategy involves three elements:

The first is prevention and preparedness. We have been using foundational outbreak processes that are in place every year for influenza and other viruses to help high-risk locations and settings, such as continuing care facilities, work camps, and shelters to alter regular practices so that if a case of COVID were to appear, the chances the virus would spread would be minimized.

Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services have worked with these organizations to ensure these practices are changed in order to prevent spread and to be sure that organizations are ready to respond should a case be confirmed.

The second element is rapid response, and timely notification of Alberta Health Services public health. This occurs when an individual in one of these settings, such as continuing care, has symptoms related to COVID, so that even before a case is confirmed, prompt testing can happen and additional controls can be put in place.

AHS has set up a toll free line to make it easy for any operator of any congregate care site in the province to get immediate support and guidance on how to respond to a resident or staff who have symptoms related to COVID.

These early measures make it possible to keep small numbers of cases from becoming larger.

Finally, the third element is outbreak management — the actions we implement once an outbreak has been declared.

The cornerstones of this stage include:

  • Identifying all cases and those with symptoms and isolating them from others;
  • Assessing individuals who have been exposed and testing and isolating them;
  • Using surveillance data to understand the likely source and how the virus is being transmitted; and
  • Implementing setting-specific measures to prevent any further transmission from occurring.

One particular setting where this strategy is used consistently is for continuing care.

Outbreaks in these facilities remain a concern for many, including public health officials, families, operators, staff and of course the residents of those facilities.

At the same time, I have heard that the preventive measures that have been put in place to prevent outbreaks have had negative impacts on the quality of life for many residents.

Both of these — outbreak prevention and quality of life — are really important, and as we learn to live with COVID, we need to continue to make adjustments.

Today, I want to talk about new public health orders that amend existing directives for these kinds of facilities.

These orders are designed to ensure continued protection of residents in continuing care facilities, as well as improving their quality of life.

First of all, in these facilities, anyone with the mildest symptoms such as a hoarse voice or muscle aches must immediately be tested for COVID-19 and isolated until results come back.

In addition, as soon as a COVID-19 case is identified, all residents in the same unit are now tested, even if they are feeling fine and show no symptoms. This has been a recommendation for several weeks, and it is now incorporated into the order to underline the importance of early diagnosis in close contacts in this population.

Although testing someone without symptoms is only a snapshot in time, and does not stop the need to isolate for 14 days in close contacts of confirmed cases, it can help to identify cases before symptoms start, helping to better control an outbreak.

To protect the health of workers, any staff member caring for an isolated resident must also wear eye protection, along with all other appropriate personal protective equipment, including a gown, mask, visor and gloves.

Other measures still remain in place, such as requiring all staff to wear masks through the duration of their shifts in all of these facilities, as well as requiring workers in long term care and designated supportive living facilities to work at only one location.

The measures we have put in place over these last weeks are necessary to protect those in long-term care and other facilities.

But I also know they are causing many residents to feel further isolation. This is something that I think about often and I have heard peoples’ stories.

Maintaining connections with family and friends is paramount during the pandemic, especially for residents in continuing care and licensed supportive living settings.

To help improve residents’ quality of life, as well as recognizing that orders for continuing care facilities may need to be in place for some time, I am issuing a second new order. 

It will allow residents of these facilities who are not in isolation to enjoy outdoor visits with a designated essential visitor and one other person.

These are important to the mental health of residents and families. Of course, even while outside, all appropriate precautions must be taken to prevent exposure to COVID-19.

This includes physical distancing and requiring all visitors to wear a mask or face covering.

I want to emphasize that restricting visitors into these facilities continues to be necessary to protect the long-term safety of staff, residents, and visitors, especially in facilities with a confirmed outbreak.

However, there have been a number of examples where this policy has been applied in a more restrictive way than was intended, particularly for palliative and end-of-life visitation.

We expect that individuals who are dying should have the opportunity to have their loved ones at their side while following the guidance in place to ensure everyone’s safety.

That is why the orders that I am announcing today also clarify visitation for circumstances where an Albertan is at the end of their life.

The definition of end of life is in the two weeks prior to death, acknowledging that these estimates will always be imprecise.

It is important though that it be clear that end of life is being measured in weeks rather than in days or in hours. Also, up to two visitors at a time will be allowed to visit a patient who is dying, as long as physical distancing can be maintained between the visitors.

Finally, it should be clarified that stand-alone hospice facilities are not affected by these orders, and no visitor restrictions are applicable to hospice settings.

I’d like to thank the Alberta Health Advocate for bringing this important issue to my attention and for continuing to advocate on behalf of families with a loved one in palliative care.

Finally, I have signed a new order specifically for residential addiction treatment facilities.

Effective today, we are issuing standards that all residential addiction treatment facilities must follow.

Previously, they had to follow the same requirements as continuing care facilities, but their needs are unique.

These new measures are intended to prevent the risk of infection while allowing individuals to continue to receive treatment and overcome their addiction.

That is why this order allows special accommodations for group therapy and to support the shorter residency of clients.

I know outbreaks continue to be a concern for many Albertans. They are for me as well.

I want to assure you that we have a comprehensive strategy in place and aggressive outbreak measures are being implemented across the province, from prevention to outbreak response.

This will be a cornerstone of our ability to live with COVID for the foreseeable future – our ability to work together to prevent rapid spread in all settings, but particularly in those that are at the highest risk.

I want to end today by taking a moment to address the Albertans evacuating from their communities due to flooding and the communities who are welcoming their neighbours in this time of need.

I want to assure you that the safety of Albertans is our top priority.

During emergency situations like this, we must come together to quickly and collectively respond as a community.

As long as proper precautions are taken, there is no risk in welcoming evacuees to your communities in their time of need. 

Thank you. I’m happy to take questions.