Everything you need to know about COVID-19 in Alberta on Thursday, March 4

Alberta reports a jump in new COVID-19 cases, a Red Deer meat-processing plant at the centre of an outbreak linked to three worker deaths plans to reopen and NDP Leader Rachel Notley urges the UCP government to keep it closed while launching a public inquiry of the Olymel outbreak.

Red Deer slaughterhouse linked to at least 500 COVID-19 cases to reopen Thursday

The Olymel outbreak, first declared on Nov. 17, 2020, has been linked to at least 500 cases, and led to the temporary closure of the plant on Feb. 15. (Olymel)

The latest:

  • Alberta reported 331 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, a decrease from 402 on Wednesday and 257 on Tuesday.
  • Alberta will expand its COVID-19 vaccine rollout to include people under age 75 starting March 15, and if shipments arrive as scheduled, all adults in the province will receive their first dose by the end of June.
  • An outbreak of COVID-19 in an Alberta long-term care facility as been linked to a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus. 
  • The outbreak was confirmed late on Friday at Churchill Manor in Edmonton with a single case, and since Friday, 27 staff and residents have tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, announced Alberta will join other provinces in adopting the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommendation to extend the period between the first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Hinshaw will deliver her next update on Friday at 3:30 p.m. CBC News will cover it live on the website and Facebook. 
  • A Red Deer meat-processing plant at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak linked to three worker deaths planned to reopen on Thursday for slaughter operations. 
  • The news of the reopening of the Olymel facility came the same day the union that represents its employees said a third worker's death had been linked to the COVID-19 outbreak at the plant. As of Wednesday, the plant outbreak had been linked to 511 cases — including 91 that are still active — and four deaths, three of them workers, according to the union.
  • Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley is asking Premier Jason Kenney to launch a public inquiry into the outbreak, delay the meat-packing plant's reopening and compensate its employees during the closure.
  • Notley asked the provincial government to keep the plant closed until safety measures requested by the plant's union are met and employees feel safe going back to work.
  • Alberta moved to Step 2 of its plan to lift COVID-19 public-health restrictions on Monday, saying that gyms and fitness centres would be allowed to reopen for "low-intensity" activities and clarifying Tuesday that decisions about what constitutes "safe" indoor fitness activities will be left to gym owners and their clients.
  • Libraries were also allowed to open to 15 per cent of fire code capacity, under the limited easing of restrictions announced Monday by Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, and Hinshaw.
  • The province said it would decide on March 22 whether to ease restrictions further at that point on retail businesses, hotels, banquet halls and children's sports.
  • As of Thursday, there were 4,613 active cases across the province as well as nine more deaths.
  • 245 people were being treated in hospital for COVID-19, a decrease of six from the day before, with 47 people in intensive care beds.
  • 9,483 coronavirus tests were completed with a positivity rate of 3.55 per cent.
  • Thirty-one additional variant cases were recorded on Thursday, bringing the total to 541. Of those variant cases, almost all — 531 — are the strain first identified in the U.K. and 10 are the strain first identified in South Africa.
  • Alberta's R-value has decreased slightly to 1.01, from 1.03, but it still means that more than one person on average contracts COVID-19 from each positive case. An R-value above 1.0 indicates exponential growth. Outside of Calgary and Edmonton, the R-value fell from 1.13 to 0.94.
  • As of March 3, 130,000 people over 75 have been booked for their shot. The province says an average of 7,250 doses per day are being administered to Albertans in that age group.
  • As of March 3, the province's COVID-19 vaccination rollout had resulted in 266,231 doses of vaccine being administered. That number includes 89,786 Albertans who are fully immunized with two doses of vaccine.
  • The province says more than 7,000 first doses have been given so far to people living in First Nations communities. 
  • Kenney said Monday that cases in the province's long-term care homes have plummeted by 95 per cent after vaccinations.
  • On Feb. 19, the vaccination program expanded to all residents in retirement centres, lodges and other supportive and congregate living facilities with residents aged 75 or older.
  • Last Wednesday, it expanded to include all Albertans born in 1946 and earlier — about 230,000 more people.
  • Vaccinations also became available for all First Nations, Inuit, Métis and persons 65 years of age and over living in a First Nations community or Métis the province.
  • Vaccinations for those 75 and older (born in 1946 or earlier) are available at 102 community pharmacies in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer as well as at the AHS sites. A list of participating pharmacies is available on the Alberta Blue Cross website.
  • Family doctors and their clinical staff will be included in Phase 2 of Alberta's COVID-19 vaccine rollout. That's expected to take place between April and September.

See which regions are being hit hardest

Here is the detailed regional breakdown of active cases as of Thursday:

  • Calgary zone: 1,645, up from 1,622 (49,342 recovered).
  • Edmonton zone: 1,082, up from 1,054 (52,030 recovered).
  • North zone: 1,009, down from 1,039 (10,984 recovered).
  • South zone: 326, down from 331 (6,194 recovered).
  • Central zone: 545, down from 590 (9,617 recovered).
  • Unknown: 6, down from 13 (94 recovered).

Find out which neighbourhoods or communities have the most cases, how hard people of different ages have been hit, the ages of people in hospital, how Alberta compares to other provinces and more in: Here are the latest COVID-19 statistics for Alberta — and what they mean

You can see active cases by local health area on the following interactive map. Scroll, zoom and click on the map for more information.

Here are the latest Alberta COVID-19 stories:

Province plans to give all adults their first doses by the end of June

Alberta will expand its COVID-19 vaccine rollout to include people under age 75 starting March 15, and if shipments arrive as scheduled, all adults in the province will receive their first dose by the end of June, the health minister says.

"By June 30, we expect to have offered every single adult in the province at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine," Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday at a news conference.

Mary House, 80, receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Calgary on Feb. 24. (Alberta Health Services)

Under the expanding vaccine program set to begin in less than two weeks, about 437,000 more people between the ages of 65 and 74 will become eligible for inoculations, Shandro said.

To avoid long delays for those making appointments, when Phase 2A begins on March 15 bookings will be offered in two-year age groups, Shandro said.

On the first day, anyone aged 73 or 74 will be able to book.

On the second day, eligibility will be expanded to include anyone aged 71 to 72, and so on from there.

Alberta NDP demands public inquiry into deadly COVID outbreak at Red Deer slaughterhouse

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley is asking Premier Jason Kenney to launch a public inquiry into a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at a Red Deer slaughterhouse, delay the meat-packing plant's reopening and compensate its employees during the closure.

The Olymel plant — which closed temporarily Feb. 15 — confirmed Wednesday that it planned to reopen for slaughter operations on Thursday and resume cutting room operations on Friday.

The news of the reopening came on the same day that a third worker's death had been linked to the outbreak.

According to the union, that raises the total number of deaths to four, including a woman in her 60s previously linked to the outbreak, but the government has yet to confirm that total.

The outbreak has been linked to 511 COVID-19 cases, including 91 that are still active.

Notley asked the provincial government to keep the plant closed until safety measures requested by the plant's union are met and employees feel safe going back to work.

"With 500 infections and three deaths, [safety measures were] not adequate before," said Notley, speaking from Calgary's McDougall Centre on Thursday morning. "I can only imagine the grief and the stress that they are experiencing as a result."

An Olymel meat plant in Red Deer is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, which has been linked to a recent death, Alberta Health confirms. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

On Wednesday, Olymel defended plans to reopen Thursday, saying it had used the temporary closure to update and reinforce health and safety measures at the plant.

"It's a very sad situation for the family and friends and colleagues, and Olymel is offering its sincere condolences to the families," spokesperson Richard Vigneault said in a statement. "Olymel will remain available for assistance to support the families in this tragedy."

The company said teams from Alberta Health Services, Occupational Health and Safety, and Environmental Public Health visited the facility on March 1 and 3. AHS made several recommendations at that time.

The company said it had added staff to monitor and enforce health and safety measures, and "further adjusted and enhanced" social distancing protocols, particularly when it came to adding physical space.

Health and safety meetings between management and union representatives are scheduled on a daily basis, the company said.

"Reopening can occur because Olymel management and the regulators are satisfied that employees can return to the plant safely," said Vigneault.

Earlier this week, Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, called for the plant's reopening to be delayed, saying in an open letter that employees do not feel safe. 

The union listed more than 20 "action items" it said should be fulfilled before reopening is considered, in order to regain the confidence of employees and ensure their safety.

Alberta confirms first long-term care outbreak linked to coronavirus variant

An outbreak of COVID-19 in an Alberta long-term care facility as been linked to a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus for the first time.

The outbreak was confirmed late on Friday at Churchill Manor in Edmonton with a single case, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday at a news conference.

An outbreak of COVID-19 at Churchill Manor, long-term care facility in Edmonton, is linked to a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Hinshaw said 27 staff and residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since Friday, including 19 cases confirmed as positive for the variant.

"Local public health teams and the operator are taking this outbreak extremely seriously and working closely together to limit spread and protect everyone involved," Hinshaw said.

"Last week, before this outbreak started, we implemented mandatory new protocols that are being followed. These created new, stronger measures for when a variant case is identified in any supportive living, long-term care or hospice site.

"Staff working at an outbreak site must not work at any other workplace for the duration of the outbreak, and anyone entering the facility will be required to wear a mask and eye protection continuously."

Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders to appeal bail conditions

An Alberta pastor accused of holding Sunday services that violated COVID-19 rules is set to appeal his bail conditions today.

James Coates with GraceLife Church, west of Edmonton, has been in jail for just over two weeks.

Coates is charged with violating Alberta's Public Health Act and with breaking a promise to abide by conditions of his bail release, which is a Criminal Code offence.

The church has been holding services that officials say break public-health orders on attendance, masking and distancing.

A judge has ordered Coates to go to trial in May.

A lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor.

Decisions about 'safe' fitness activities will be made by gyms and clients, health minister says

Decisions about what constitutes "safe" indoor fitness activities will be left to gym owners and their clients, Alberta's health minister says.

Under Step 2 of the province's relaunch plan, announced on Monday, gyms and fitness centres were allowed to reopen for "low-intensity" activities.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Tuesday there was some confusion about which activities would be allowed, and he tried to clear that up.

The Alberta government says low-intensity exercises include weightlifting, low-intensity dance classes, yoga, barre and indoor climbing, as well as the low-intensity use of treadmills, ellipticals and related equipment. Masks must still be worn. (Steven Senne/AP/The Canadian Press)

"If you operate a gym, you can be open," he said. "That is perfectly within the rules."

Shandro said "low-intensity" activities are those that don't significantly raise a person's breathing rate, and said gyms and clients will be allowed to make such decisions for themselves.

"We're relying on owners and clients to use judgment, to show good faith," Shandro said at a news conference.

Some stakeholders express confusion, disappointment at scaled-back Stage 2

Some business owners and stakeholders are expressing confusion and disappointment after the Alberta government announced that Stage 2 of its reopening plan would start with a scaled-back approach to easing restrictions.

Initially Stage 2 included the potential reopening of facilities that included banquet halls, community halls and conference centres, and the further reopening of fitness facilities.

Scott Wildeman, the president of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada and an instructor with GYMVMT in Calgary, says safety protocols in Alberta's fitness facilities were robust. (CBC)

Instead, it will now begin with libraries reopening at 15 per cent of fire code capacity. Low-intensity individual and group fitness activities, such as light strength training, Pilates and tai-chi, are also now permitted at gyms.

But high-intensity workouts including spinning and CrossFit currently remain prohibited, and restrictions on hotels, community and banquet halls, and conference centres will continue until Stage 3 — "at least" three weeks away, Shandro said Monday.

"To be honest, my heart stopped a bit [when I heard the announcement]," said Christine Dairon, the marketing director for the Delta by Marriott Calgary South.

  • For the latest on what's happening in the rest of Canada and around the world, see here.

With files from The Canadian Press


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