COVID-19 Updates: State of public health emergency declared.
Check against delivery.
Thank you, Tom and good afternoon everyone.
Alberta, we have a challenge, and it’s not just our COVID-19 numbers.
We are increasingly challenged by polarizing narratives that, on the one hand, say we need to drive to zero cases at all costs, and, on the other hand, say that COVID is a mild illness for most, so we should let it spread freely and pursue herd immunity.
We are not well-served by false dichotomies, or by any positions that make it harder to have the respectful dialogue that a complex, wicked problem like COVID-19 presents.
We must continue listening to each other, and striking a difficult but necessary balance.
We cannot live in fear and terror of COVID-19 for months to come, yet we also cannot abandon our efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities and to make sure the health system can continue meeting all Albertans’ health needs.
I ask not that you fear COVID-19, but that you respect it.
COVID is a novel disease that is not just “the flu”.
It has the ability to overwhelm our health system and weaken essential services if we let it do so.
Respecting COVID-19 means taking public health advice seriously, and taking care of not only ourselves, but also our communities by preventing transmission.
I also ask that each of us do everything in our power to maintain respectful dialogue with those who have different opinions.
We cannot let COVID divide us.
We will find better solutions by continuing to work together and finding strength in diversity.
Having said that, we are also facing a COVID-19 challenge.
You have heard me say many times that we need to achieve a balance between minimizing the risk of COVID-19 and minimizing the risk of harms of restrictions.
This requires us to keep the spread of COVID-19 manageable.
We have now crossed a tipping point and are losing the balance we have been seeking.
Last week, Edmonton Zone moved to defer elective surgeries in order to deal with all the system pressures that COVID is creating.
These pressures include not just COVID-19 patients in hospital but also:
- outbreaks in continuing care that prevent patient transfers,
- staff shortages due to illness or quarantine,
- and a need to treat any patient with COVID-like symptoms or exposure with robust infection control precautions, meaning among other impacts that multi-bed rooms cannot be used to full capacity.
The trigger of COVID hospitalization growth that we have been watching is not above five per cent.
However, we need to respond to the actual situation, not just the metric chosen in the spring.
This weekend’s COVID-19 case numbers tell the story clearly.
We identified, on average, 480 cases of COVID-19 per day over the weekend.
Breaking it down by day, on Friday, 364 new cases were identified, while our lab conducted more than 16,000 tests.
On Saturday, we completed over 17,000 tests. We also identified 572 new cases.
And yesterday, we diagnosed 504 cases and completed almost 12,700 tests.
There are currently 118 people in hospital in Alberta, including 16 in intensive care with COVID-19.
One of the challenges of rising cases is that it creates pressure on certain key elements of our COVID-19 response, including contact tracing.
We have been working with AHS on new strategies to more effectively and efficiently notify close contacts of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Right now, AHS has more than 800 staff on its contact tracing team.
AHS is increasing their staffing as quickly as possible, and they are actively recruiting more people to meet these increasing demands.
But, we still need to get information to Albertans faster.
Effective today, if a positive case attended an event while infectious, AHS will now notify the organizer and provide them with written notification that can be directly emailed to all event attendees.
We will be asking event organizers to send these emails within 24 hours of being contacted by AHS.
This change will make the close contact notification process quicker for large events.
Of course, if an event organizer cannot support this more rapid email notification process, AHS will continue to make these phone calls.
AHS will also continue to directly notify close contacts of cases who were exposed outside of any public or private event, and will continue to directly contact anyone who tests positive for COVID-19.
Turning to schools, there are active alerts or outbreaks in about 11 per cent of all schools, with a total of 680 active cases.
There are currently 101 schools with an outbreak, including 39 that are on the watch list with five or more cases.
39 schools have now been removed from the outbreak list as their outbreaks have ended.
Parents, teachers, students and staff are taking their responsibility to protect one another from COVID-19 seriously.
And I thank them for their dedicated efforts.
So far in-school transmission has occurred in 79 schools. Of these, 45 have had only one new case result.
These are significant numbers, but it’s important to keep them in context.
Just six per cent of all COVID cases in those aged 5 to 19 since September 1 have been acquired at school.
This shows that schools are not a main driver of community transmission, but that our rising community transmission is resulting in more school exposures.
This reinforces the importance of addressing the rising spread we’re seeing in our communities.
Sadly, I must report seven additional deaths of COVID-19. This is a heart-breaking number.
My thoughts go out to these families and everyone else who is grieving right now losses of any kind.
I know there are many Albertans that are struggling with the loss of loved ones, from many different causes.
It is to prevent losses like the ones the families and friends of these seven people are experiencing, to prevent more growth in those in hospital and ICU with COVID-19, and to prevent further impacts on the ability of the health system to care for all Albertans’ needs, that we must collectively commit today to change the current trend of COVID-19 spread and regain the balance that we are striving for.
In Edmonton specifically, while the rate of growth in new COVID cases had declined to 1.13 after voluntary measures were announced on October 8th, that has risen in recent days, and the number of cases continues to grow.
The average positivity rate for all COVID-19 tests in Edmonton has now increased to over four per cent.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients, and the other impacts of increased community spread have started to impact other services.
As I mentioned earlier, due to the demands on the health system, AHS has moved to postpone up to 30 per cent of non-urgent surgeries in the Edmonton Zone.
This measure will need to remain in place until the COVID-19 demands ease in order to support safe patient care in hospitals in the area.
We are all tired, but COVID-19 will be with us for some time.
We need to be able to ensure that caseloads do not threaten the health system’s ability to support all the health needs of Albertans.
When we look at Calgary, the spread is reminiscent of where Edmonton was at several weeks ago.
The number of cases being identified continues to rise sharply, and about three per cent of COVID-19 tests are now coming back positive.
Without additional measures being taken, we risk seeing a similarly sharp rise in Calgary, not just of cases, but also of hospitalizations, which would potentially impact our health system and its ability to meet Calgarians’ needs.
We are in a crucial phase right now and need to take steps to reduce the rate of growth that we are seeing, not only in Edmonton but in Calgary as well.
At the same time, we must continue to strike a balance between limiting the spread of COVID-19 and supporting all the other elements of people’s health.
This is a delicate balance, and there is no one perfect way to navigate this pandemic.
We must rely on the evidence that we are seeing in spread within the province.
In the last two weeks in Calgary and Edmonton, social gatherings made up just 15 per cent of all outbreaks but almost a third of all outbreak-related cases.
Workplace outbreaks made up about 15 per cent of outbreaks and outbreak cases.
In contrast, there has only been one outbreak linked to a restaurant in the past two weeks, and less than one per cent of active cases in Edmonton and Calgary are linked to exposures in restaurants.
Today I am announcing new public health measures for the cities of Edmonton and Calgary to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Effective immediately, we are implementing a mandatory 15-person limit on all social gatherings in Edmonton and Calgary.
This limit applies to gatherings where people are mixing and mingling, such as dinner parties, birthday parties, social events, and wedding and funeral receptions.
It also applies to special event celebrations like retirement events, baby showers, and other social gatherings.
This limit does not change the measures currently in place for events that are structured such as ordinary dining in restaurants, theatres, worship services, or wedding and funeral ceremonies.
However, it would apply to gatherings that may occur before or after these events, such as wedding receptions or a social event at a restaurant or another site.
We are following the evidence and implementing a targeted measure that will help reduce transmission and limit the risks of cases growing exponentially in both cities.
These social gatherings tend to be less structured and can struggle to implement key measures like physical distancing and handwashing to reduce the risks of exposure.
This 15-person limit is temporary.
It will be reassessed after one month and can be lifted if we see our growth rate, or R value, decline below 1 and new case numbers consistently below 100 in each city.
My sincere hope is that we will see cases decline significantly enough to reassess this approach and lift it within this one-month time.
Along with the mandatory limit on social gatherings, two voluntary public health measures will remain in place for Edmonton and will be put in place today for anyone living in or visiting Calgary.
First, we strongly recommend wearing non-medical masks in all indoor work settings, except when alone in workspaces such as offices or cubicles, where you can be safely distanced from others or if appropriate barriers are in place.
We continue to see workplace outbreaks where co-workers consider themselves to be a cohort just because they work together.
This creates risk in workplaces, and I want to remind everyone that COVID prevention measures should be in place between co-workers as well as between staff and the public.
Second, we need to reduce the number of close contacts that people have and reduce the connections between different networks.
The tool we are using to accomplish this is a voluntary measure that all those in Edmonton or Calgary should belong to no more than three cohorts:
- a core cohort including the household and a small group of people with whom exclusively you’ve agreed to gather;
- a school cohort,
- and one additional sport, social or other cohort.
Young children who attend child care may be part of four cohorts, given that child care cohorts have not been seen to be at high risk for spread.
Surrounding communities in the Edmonton Zone should continue to follow the voluntary public health measures in place to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.
No additional measures are being implemented in the communities surrounding Calgary, but all Albertans should continue to stay home if they are sick, physically distance whenever possible, wear a mask when you can’t, and wash your hands frequently, along with all other guidance in place.
The measures are not being taken lightly, and I know they will impact many.
But they are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from continuing to escalate.
AHS will also be increasing inspections of public-serving businesses to ensure that existing guidance is being followed and customers are protected.
Due to COVID-19’s incubation period it will likely be one-to-two weeks before we can begin assessing the impact of these health measures.
We will be watching our numbers closely to assess the trends.
But the impact of public health measures alone cannot compare to the collective power of all Albertans taking action.
I thank the people of Edmonton for their voluntary efforts as of late to control the spread – it has been making a difference to slow the growth rate of the disease.
We do not need a rule or an order to do the right thing, or to make the smart choice, and the voluntary measures have demonstrated that.
However, the rate of growth of these new cases and hospitalizations means we have to step up our efforts even further with this new temporary restriction as well.
Our best hope to avoid needing any further restrictions and to keep businesses recovering and the health system readily available is for all of us to go the extra mile.
I know this is difficult. COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint, and Albertans have been sacrificing and working hard for many months now.
But the warning bell is ringing and I want all of us to hear its call.
It has been said many times that we must learn to live with our new normal.
This means that in addition to targeting areas of high risk as we are doing today, we must also ease restrictions in areas of low risk.
We must not make perfect the enemy of good.
We must make it as easy as possible for Albertans to live with the most important COVID restrictions and lift others where we can.
We are working to use our own evidence, and learnings from other jurisdictions, to adjust our approach when the evidence indicates we can safely do so, and one example is the symptom list for children.
We are closely reviewing the symptom list for school aged children, as the changes made in BC and Ontario did not show a corresponding increase in COVID-19 transmission in schools.
This work is nearly complete and we hope to update Albertans soon on any updates to that symptom list.
We are a remarkable province, with a long and proud history of coming together and looking out for one another.
Let’s continue that tradition now by doing our part to limit the spread and by following the guidance put in place as closely as possible.
This is the best way for all of us to protect ourselves and our friends, family and neighbours.
We will continue working with AHS, the City of Edmonton, the City of Calgary and all our local partners to closely analyze and monitor the spread across the province.
We will watch the spread closely and consider if any adjustments are needed.
Now, more than ever, we need to take care of each other and protect each other.
As I started by saying, we have a challenge.
But our province has faced challenges before.
Albertans are not known for turning aside when things get hard.
We are stronger in our diversity if we continue to act in our communities’ best interest, and if we maintain our ability to respectfully connect across differences.
Thank you, and I will now answer any questions that you may have.