COVID-19 Updates: State of public health emergency declared.
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Let me begin by making an apology. In the announcement I made earlier this week regarding visitor restrictions in continuing care, I did not ensure that operators had been fully consulted or notified prior to the policy change.
I am sorry.
This has put operators in a difficult position, as they did not have time to prepare.
I ask that families and friends of those in continuing care be patient with the operators who are working to adapt to the change and keep staff and residents safe.
We all need to work together to protect this vulnerable population.
Today, as part of my daily update, I’d like to provide some more detail into the ongoing work we’ve been doing to better understand how this virus is spreading in Alberta who is most at risk for severe outcomes and share more details on the AB – Trace Together app.
But first, I would like to report an additional 218 cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases in Alberta to 5,573.
Of these, 2,359 people have now recovered.
Since my last update, we have also confirmed three additional deaths in the province. This brings the total number of lives lost to 92.
All three deaths were in continuing care facilities experiencing outbreaks.
This is a reminder of why we need to continue to be vigilant to protect this population.
My thoughts and sympathies go to everyone grieving the loss of a loved one today. We should never let these numbers become just another statistic.
As of today, there are now 580 COVID-19 cases in outbreaks in continuing care facilities across the province.
An outbreak has also been declared by Alberta Health Services at the Amazon fulfilment facility in Balzac where additional measures have been put in place to prevent spread.
Five cases have now been reported at that facility, although it is not yet clear if all five are linked with a common exposure.
We have just received this confirmation, so it will not be reflected in the outbreak listing on our website today.
In addition, two positive cases have been identified at Alpha House in Calgary where a rapid response team is now supporting that location to put outbreak measures in place.
At High River’s Cargill meatpacking plant, there have now been 921 cases.
There have also been 390 confirmed cases among workers at the JBS plant in Brooks.
I want to commend the front line public health professionals and their partners who are responding to all outbreaks across the province.
They are working quickly to contain the spread, providing public health guidance to employers and operators, testing anyone who may have been exposed, and supporting those who have become ill.
In the last two weeks alone, these teams, among other things, have called every household with a Cargill worker, have tested every client who stayed in one of the shelters where a COVID case has been confirmed, have offered large volume testing to residents of Brooks over three days earlier this week, and have continued to do the regular daily work of case follow up and contact tracing that is the backbone of our ability to prevent spread of this virus.
Their tireless work is an integral part of our response to this public health emergency and I want to recognize and celebrate their dedication.
The extent of these outbreaks demonstrates not only how easily this virus can spread, but why it’s so essential that we uncover the source of transmission so we can find out who’s at highest risk of exposure.
Today, we are launching another useful tool that can supplement the critical detective work we are conducting in public health.
AB TraceTogether is a voluntary, secure, mobile contact tracing application to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
You only need to download the app and provide your mobile phone number to register.
The app is now available to all Albertans in the Google and Apple App Stores.
Let me tell you how this app will help us prevent spread.
Through the process of contact tracing, public health workers currently identify who may have come into contact with a person infected with COVID-19 by asking questions of the case and relying on their ability to remember everywhere they have been in the past several days and who they were near.
These people, their contacts, are then called to find out if they are sick, and to make sure that they stay home for 14 days from last exposure even if they are feeling well.
This is a vital step in preventing further spread of the virus.
It is also time consuming and resource intensive, relying on each individuals’ abilities to recollect who they may have come into contact with and then follow-up with each of those individuals to be successful.
When a contact tests positive for COVID-19, they become a case, and the contact tracing process is then repeated to identify, test and isolate their contacts, as necessary.
Contact tracing, when complemented by aggressive testing, can help us interrupt ongoing transmission and reduce the spread.
The faster AHS contract tracers can inform exposed people, or close contacts, the quicker we will be able to prevent potential outbreaks and identify when Albertans must self-isolate.
In addition, these tactics yield valuable data that help us get a better understanding of how the disease is spread and what underlying factors can contribute to cases of severe disease.
Like bringing a camera into focus, these techniques give us a far clearer picture that helps inform our actions going forward.
AB TraceTogether relies on the use of wireless Bluetooth technology to log interactions as an encrypted “digital handshake”. This happens when two phones with the app get within two metres of one another for an overall total of 15 minutes within a 24-hour period of time.
In the event someone with the app tests positive for COVID-19, they will be asked to allow contact tracers at Alberta Health Services to use this information to further enhance manual contact tracing, and allow other app users to be contacted so they can be informed if they have been potentially exposed.
Even when app users who may have been exposed are contacted, user identities will not be shared, users will merely be informed that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Previously, public health professionals at Alberta Health Services would have no way to know about the encounters of a COVID positive patient if they cannot recall them, or if they may have come into contact with persons who are unknown to them.
Now they will, and they can contact that person and let them know they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The use of technology for this purpose may seem intrusive, but downloading the app is completely voluntary and data will not be accessed unless a user provides consent to share their data with AHS.
The app does not use your phone’s GPS, and does not track the user’s location or contacts.
The only information exchanged between users’ phones is a random ID that is non-identifiable – nothing identifiable is exchanged.
Data is stored on your phone in an encrypted form for 21 days and then deleted.
Your information will not be used unless you agree to participate and consent to sharing the encrypted handshakes from the last 21 days.
If you are diagnosed with COVID and you consent to the information on your phone being used, the contact tracer will be able to match the unique non-identifiable IDs on your phone with the registered users’ phone numbers via a merging of data.
This is the only information you are asked to provide, and providing this information voluntarily is crucial to our work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I have already downloaded the app myself and encourage you to do so too.
You can aid in our work to keep Albertans healthy and provide crucial information about the spread of this dangerous illness.
In the weeks since our first case was discovered in Alberta, we have learned a great deal about this virus.
I’d like to share with you a few of these key findings.
First, while we know older individuals are at highest risk of severe symptoms, COVID-19 does not discriminate by age when it comes to who is infected.
The average age of cases to date is 41.5 years, and we have seen cases in every age group.
Second, as part of the interviewing process whenever a case is identified, we now have a better understanding of the most common symptoms associated with COVID-19.
The most frequent symptom identified is a cough, with roughly 62% of all cases reporting this.
The next highest is sore throat at 33%, followed by fever at 28%.
We also found 7.6% of our cases showed no symptoms at all at the point they were tested. These are cases found by testing all those in outbreak settings, where the risk of exposure is higher than for the general population.
Our investigations have also uncovered the conditions that tend to be present in cases of severe disease.
We looked at whether cases had been previously diagnosed with one of nine conditions, including cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory disease, and immune deficiency disease.
As well, we also see if a case had been reported to have obesity or a history of smoking.
From the data so far, we’ve found that people between the ages of 30 and 64 are more likely to have a severe outcome, needing hospital or ICU treatment or in the worst outcome, leading to death, if they had at least one of these health conditions.
Among cases in this age group, two thirds of hospitalized cases and almost three quarters of deceased cases had at least one of these conditions.
Older age continues to be the most significant risk factor for severe outcomes, with those over 65 years of age being almost five times more likely to need hospital care or to die than those under 65. The risk of these severe outcomes increases the older a person is, so risk is higher for those over 80 than for those between 65 and 79.
We found the three most common factors in cases of severe outcomes, such as ICU and death, are older age, obesity and immunodeficiency.
So bringing this all together, I can distill two key lessons for Albertans.
One is the importance of everyone monitoring ourselves for COVID symptoms and, should they occur, isolating yourself until they disappear, and going online to arrange for a COVID test.
I know I keep repeating this message, but I cannot overstate how critical this step is to protecting the health of those around you.
So, I encourage all of you to be mindful of what your body is telling you and stay home if you have a cough, fever, runny nose, sore throat or difficulty breathing.
Our investigation into comorbidities also has some important takeaways that Albertans can practice.
Sadly, age is a predominant factor in severe cases, and there is little we can do to change that. Except for protecting those who are older.
But we also know that many of the conditions associated with COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths in younger people are things that CAN be addressed.
Factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are all conditions where supports and management options are available to Albertans.
Eating healthy, exercising regularly, and quitting or reducing smoking are things we can control that may help reduce our risk of experiencing the more severe aspects of this virus.
But just as importantly, these are positive, rewarding behaviour changes that can greatly affect our health over the long term from even more deadly complications, such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
I encourage every Albertan to take an active role in their health and our collective health as we respond to this pandemic.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to download the AB TraceTogether app.
As I said earlier, this technology is an important tool for public health experts to track the spread of COVID-19 and prevent further transmission.
It is also getting easier to get outside now that the weather is improving.
Physical activity is a great way to break up the monotony many of us are dealing with now.
Remember to practice physical distancing while you are out enjoying the sunshine.
Connect with friends and loved ones for support if you are looking to improve your physical or mental health.
We are all in this together, and together, we can take positive steps to improve our personal and collective health.
Thank you. I am happy to take questions.