Containing COVID-19: Medical supplies are stockpiled and Alberta doctors are on alert

Alberta health officials continue to work behind the scenes to prepare for any potential cases of COVID-19, the name scientists have given to the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

No cases of novel coronavirus in Alberta but health officials are preparing just in case

Dr. Janet Reynolds, medical director of Crowfoot Village Family Practice, says preparing for any potential cases of COVID-19 is a lot like preparing for influenza, but with a few important differences. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Alberta health officials and doctors continue to work behind the scenes to prepare for any potential cases of COVID-19, the name scientists have given to the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

There are no confirmed or probable cases in Alberta.

But a spike in international cases — mostly in China — has pushed the number of people confirmed to have COVID-19 above 59,000.

The death toll now sits at more than 1,300 worldwide.

At the Crowfoot Village Family Practice in northwest Calgary, posters featuring red stop signs warn patients who have a new cough and are feeling sick to don a mask for the duration of their visit. Boxes of surgical masks can be found on the counter at the reception desk.

Signs reminding patients to put on a mask if they have a cough and are feeling sick are posted at the Crowfoot Village Family Practice. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Staff have been given a refresher on infection control, and the supply room is stocked with supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer and isolation protection kits. The kits include gowns, masks and other disposable equipment.

"For us, this is not unlike how we get ready for regular flu season," said the clinic's medical director and family doctor, Dr. Janet Reynolds. She has been monitoring regular updates on COVID-19 from various organizations, including Alberta Health Services.

"If patients come in with a fever, cough, cold, we ask them to put a mask on when they come to reception and try to put them directly into an exam room so that they're not potentially spreading their infection to other vulnerable patients."

Patients who have a cough and are feeling unwell are asked to wear a mask for the duration of their appointment. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

A key difference, though, is staff are asking about a  patient's travel history, since that is one of the criteria that would trigger concerns about potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.

According to Reynolds, while they've received phone calls from people — who have either travelled to China or have been exposed to someone who has and are worried about COVID-19 — they have yet to see any patients in the office with symptoms and a travel history warranting testing.

She says people who call in and are feeling unwell are encouraged to stay home.

In some cases, they're being prompted to call Health Link, the province's health advice and information line (dial 811).

811 calls coming in

In the past week, Health Link has received an average 40-50 calls per day related to the novel coronavirus, out of a daily total ranging from 1,800 to 2,000 calls.

The latest numbers released by Alberta Health, updated on Feb. 7, show 28 Albertans have been tested for the illness and all tests have come back negative.

"I think we're at a really critical point right now, globally, and I think that is relevant to Alberta," said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health. 

Supplies of masks, gloves and isolation gowns at Crowfoot Village Family Practice. The clinic's medical director says they've had no trouble obtaining supplies. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

According to Hinshaw, the risk to Alberta continues to be low and the next few weeks will be pivotal in terms of containing the illness.

"I think it's too early to declare it one way or another. But again, the current risk in Alberta remains low.… We continue to do a lot of work on screening people and supporting people who are staying home, and also if there are people who are symptomatic, making sure that they get appropriate testing and advice," she said.

Work is going on behind the scenes to prepare for any cases that may show up in this province. Hinshaw says there are stockpiles of medical supplies that can be moved around the province as needed.

"At the moment, it's business as usual on the front lines and in the background making sure that there are extra supplies if we should need them."

In January, the province worked to secure extra supplies including surgical masks and specialized N95 respirator masks that are required for procedures where there is a risk that tiny droplets containing the virus could become airborne. That includes CPR,  intubation (where a tube is inserted to help a person breathe) and the use of nebulizers, which give a patient medication in the form of a mist through a mask.

"There was an extra order put in for additional personal protective equipment just in case it's needed — just out of an abundance of caution," she said. 

The clinic has medical supplies, including infection prevention kits, in the event that potential cases of the novel coronavirus show up. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Alberta  Health says that order was placed early in an effort to avoid any potential shortages and it has already been received. But officials won't speculate on how long those supplies could last or how many people could be treated with the additional stock.

In an email to CBC News, a government spokesperson said "it would depend on a wide range of factors. However, health officials continually evaluate and assess the province's stockpile of medical supplies and equipment, and will continue to do so.… While we're acting out of an abundance of caution, we do not expect that extra supplies will be needed in the immediate future."

Front-line health staff have also been given detailed instructions and updates on how to use infection control equipment and what type of equipment is required and when.

About the Author

Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.