Thank you, Tom, and good afternoon everyone.
Today, I’d like to provide an update on COVID-19 over the long weekend and talk about recent spread of the virus in Alberta.
On Friday, we identified 154 new cases and the provincial lab completed almost 11,400 tests.
On Saturday, we identified 171 new cases and conducted more than 11,300 tests.
For Sunday, we identified 137 new cases. On that day, more than 12,000 tests were completed.
Finally, yesterday, we detected 157 new cases and conducted 12,561 tests – a new daily record for Alberta.
Sadly, I must report 5 more deaths over the long weekend. This includes two residents of the Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre.
These residents had improved, and were considered to have recovered, but their conditions then worsened, and, sadly, they passed away.
My sympathies go out to all who lost loved ones over the weekend, whether to COVID-19 or any other cause.
I am pleased to report that more than 13,100 Albertans have now recovered.
However, 45 people are now in hospital, including 10 in intensive care.
There are currently 1,692 active cases in the province – unfortunately the most we have had since May 9th.
I am concerned about the continued rise in cases.
Our focus continues to be on limiting the spread of COVID-19 in the community, and responding quickly to outbreaks when they occur.
However, higher case numbers and more outbreaks can strain our front line teams.
We have posted new outbreaks today, including one at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald in Edmonton. Currently, there are seven cases linked to this outbreak.
The cases are all among staff members, and Alberta Health Services is working closely with the hotel to ensure anyone at risk is isolated and tested, as needed. At this time, no risk has been identified to hotel guests.
As many of you know, a number of cases in school staff and students were among those reported this weekend.
As I mentioned on Friday, this is not unexpected.
In each case, AHS worked quickly with school officials to identify contacts and ensure anyone at risk is isolated.
This quick action is crucial to keeping schools safe in the days and weeks ahead.
I also know that getting told you have tested positive or are a close contact can be upsetting for these children and their parents.
It is important that we talk to our children about what this means, and what will come next.
If your child is a close contact, they will need to isolate for 14 days. Testing can be arranged, though they will need to stay home for the full 14 days even if they test negative.
I know that it can be frustrating, after just a few days in school, that they already may need to stay home for two weeks if they are a close contact.
This is understandable. At the same time, we need to approach these situations cautiously.
Anyone exposed to COVID-19 could become ill at any point in the next two weeks, and a single negative test does not assure safety.
As we gain more direct experience with COVID-19 in schools, we will continue evaluating our approach to assessing close contacts.
At this point, all students in a classroom are considered close contacts if a classmate attended while infectious.
We will assess that, as I said, and over time perhaps be able to adjust and amend that cautious approach.
I also want to put these cases in context. All school authorities have returned to school as of today.
In a normal year, this would mean about 750,000 students and 90,000 staff in 2,400 schools across Alberta.
While not all students have returned due to some families choosing at-home learning options, the majority are back in class.
Since September 1st, Alberta Health Services has reported to us 11 cases that were present at 11 different schools while infectious.
This leaves approximately 2,389 schools that have had no disruption.
None of these 11 cases acquired infection at school.
Alberta Health Services is responding, and we are taking each case extremely seriously but we also need to remember that there are no risk-free options with COVID and that we must support every aspect of our children’s health.
We need to be nimble, and continue adapting our approaches based on emerging evidence and the needs of schools and students.
For example, as noted in Order 33, masking is mandatory for grades 4 through 12 outside of seated class instruction.
However, we are allowing schools to implement enhanced physical distancing measures as an alternative to mandatory masking if a school can make sure that 2 metres is maintained at all times outside of seated class instruction.
If this can be done and if a school authority can submit a detailed plan showing how this distancing will be maintained some schools may be allowed to not require masking indoors in the school.
The Fort Vermillion School Division submitted such a plan last week for six of their schools, and I approved it yesterday.
It includes aggressive measures such as allowing only one cohort in a hallway at a time, staggering class transitions and eliminating school transition times.
We will be following up to ensure that the plan is working as intended and that there is no risk to the students.
We will also continue to closely monitor the spread of the virus in schools and adjust as needed to meet local needs.
If needed, we will make adjustments to our school models in all locations in Alberta in the weeks ahead.
We have committed to being as transparent as possible with Albertans.
We are developing additional online reporting tools to help keep the public better informed on school cases and outbreaks.
And I look forward to sharing these with you in the very near future.
I know that this is a stressful time for many.
I’ve heard that returning to in-person or online learning has brought familiar comfort to some families, and added stress to others.
As parents, we need to help educate our children on the public health guidance for back to school, including being masked and following physical distancing rules.
Particularly critically, every day, we need to ensure our children are healthy and keep them home if they are unwell even if they are only feeling slightly unwell.
I have also been told that many students, especially older students, have been congregating after school, sharing drinks and in close contact with each other without masks.
Even if schools operate perfectly, there is a responsibility for parents and students to make sure that the same precautions are followed outside of the school.
I recognize that a lot of information is coming quickly – from teachers, schools and from public health workers.
It’s a lot to take in – and can certainly add to the stress.
That’s one of the reasons I have written an open letter to all parents in the province.
This letter includes information on public health guidance for schools, clarification on masks and physical distancing, suggestions for preparing your child for in school learning and more.
The letter has been shared with school authorities and parents should receive written copies shortly.
I’ll also post it online and via social media later today.
We all need to support each other as we enter this new phase of our pandemic experience.
The more we can listen to each other’s perspectives and find common ground, the better positioned we will be to succeed.
Currently the cases in school appear to be from community transmission.
They are not linked to transmission within the schools.
This is another reminder that one of the best ways to keep schools safe is to bring down our community transmission rates.
With the rise in active cases, we are looking closely at trends and locations of exposure throughout the province.
One of the things that is showing up is a higher percentage of new cases that are close contacts of known cases.
I know that one of the things that will help with limiting spread from cases to their close contacts is improving our turn-around times to get results back to those who have been tested.
As I have said before, Alberta Health Services is working extremely hard to accomplish this.
Having said this, another pattern we are seeing is that those who have mild symptoms of sore throat, runny nose, or nasal congestion are not consistently staying home when those symptoms start.
I know that it is inconvenient and possibly irritating to stay home with a mild illness but it is absolutely critical that we support each other to do this.
What is a mild, short-lived illness for one person can be a life-threatening risk for others, with long-lasting health consequences.
Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.
This also means we need to think about systems that support people to stay home.
How can we make it as easy as possible for workers to stay home when sick and still be able to pay their bills?
How can we make it easy for parents to keep mildly ill students home without consequences for the student’s learning or the parent’s job?
These are the challenges we must face together to avoid having to take any steps backwards, which none of us want to do.
I have been asked a lot about pandemic fatigue.
The first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Alberta over six months ago.
That is a long time to be faced with stress and uncertainty.
It is a long time to hear about all the things we need to do, and all of the things we can’t do anymore.
It can feel even longer when there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
I know that life in a pandemic is tiring. It’s important for all of us to find a way to take care of ourselves.
With shorter and cooler days ahead of us, I encourage all of us to start thinking about what we can do for self-care in the months ahead.
Maybe it’s connecting with loved ones or becoming more physically active.
Maybe it’s arranging a virtual get together with friends you haven’t seen in a while, or maybe it’s taking time to read a good book.
I encourage all of us to find something that will help refresh and strengthen our resolve to continue doing the right things that protect our neighbours, our families, and ourselves.
We continue to see a rise in cases, but we are not powerless here. Together, we can reverse the trend.
We are in this together, and we will get through this together.
Thank you. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.