Has Alberta reacted well to COVID-19, and is what we're doing working?

Premier Jason Kenney will make a televised address to the province Tuesday evening to give more details about slowing the spread and provide projections to show how the situation might evolve in coming weeks.

Province will release COVID-19 modelling projections Tuesday evening

In Alberta, the McKenzie Towne Long Term Care centre in Calgary has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. Without being able to visit, family and friends have been using other means to stay connected with loved ones. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

With vast numbers of Albertans working from home, and even more of them isolated from family and friends, many are likely wondering if the province's strict physical distancing rules are paying off.

Are the province's efforts working to flatten the curve? And when will this nightmare come to an end?

Unfortunately, experts say, a month after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the province, it's just too early to tell.

What is clear is that federal and provincial governments were able to follow social distancing policies in countries where the pandemic hit harder and earlier, while also learning what not to do.

Quick action has helped, experts say

Some countries, such as South Korea, took immediate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus by isolating COVID-19 cases and restricting travel.

A handful of experts told CBC News that both federal and provincial governments in Canada were quick to act once COVID-19 crossed our borders.

"We are all hearing from the chief medical officers of health almost daily, which I think has helped to get the necessary information to the public so that the public takes [physical distancing] seriously," said Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary law professor who works with the U of C's Cumming School of Medicine.

Experts say the quick government action coupled with good communication has been key to making sure Canadians understand what is happening and what they can do to help.

"There is nothing more important than an understanding of the [decision-making] structure," said Manitoba-based epidemiologist Cynthia Carr. "And how those decisions are communicated with the command and control of the situation and outward to the public.

"Because you can see from our neighbours to the south, when the president and his chief medical officer of health are disagreeing on television, then that becomes the conversation for the next half hour on television. The result of that is absolute confusion."

63,000 tests and counting

One of the biggest successes for Alberta, experts say, has been the number of tests administered. As of Sunday, more than 63,000 people had been tested in the province.

"That's been able to control the number of cases, by identifying the people who indeed have been struck by COVID-19, so that they can isolate and avoid contact," Hardcastle said.

South Korea is seen as a model for what successful testing can achieve. 

It's been one month since Alberta had its first presumptive case of COVID-19. (Rick Bremness/CBC)

One expert told CBC News the South Korean government's collaboration with labs to provide access to testing and early diagnosis has been a leading factor in that country's success in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Premier Jason Kenney told the legislature on April 1 that Alberta had surpassed South Korea's per capita number of COVID-19 tests.

The percentage of positive tests, also known as the curve of infections, was running at about two per cent as of April 1. 

"Thankfully, we have not yet seen what epidemiologists would refer to as exponential growth in the curve of infections," Kenney said that day. "That exponential growth would see a doubling every two or three days. In Alberta, we have seen a doubling roughly every seven to nine days, so this seems to be some early success in our efforts to flatten the curve."

Can we keep it up?

It's been a month since Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, told Albertans that the province had detected its first coronavirus case. 

Along with physical distancing measures, the province's health-care system has undergone changes over the last month. 

The response thus far here is on point, earnest and is as focused as you possibly could be with this much fog.- Myles Leslie, associate director of research at University of Calgary

Myles Leslie, an associate director of research at University of Calgary's School of Public Policy and assistant professor in the department of community health sciences, is looking at how COVID-19 preparedness and response policies are being transmitted to, and implemented in, hospitals and doctors' offices in Alberta.

He said the centralized system of Alberta Health Services has helped to spread vital information.

"We had the benefit of, if not the lessons learned, the fear of everywhere else," he said. "So I think all of that is very much to Alberta's advantage. And the response thus far here is on point, earnest, and is as focused as you possibly could be with this much fog.

"And so for a great big system like ours, I would say that people are adapting quite well and showing what's sexy to call resilience in remarkable ways. Can we keep this up? Can any of the jurisdictions keep this up is a particularly good question."

When will we know if it's working?

During an emergency debate in the legislature on April 1, Kenney said cases of COVID-19 could peak in Alberta in early May, when about 250 people are expected to be in intensive-care beds with the illness.

Kenney will make a televised address to the province on Tuesday evening to give more details about the province's battle to slow the spread of the virus and to provide more projections to show how the situation may evolve in coming weeks. 

"At this point, I can assure the assembly and, through it, Albertans that we are confident of our capacity to cope," the premier said on April 1. "We are confident at this stage that we will have excess hospital and health-care capacity to deal with the peak of infections."

Alberta is following in the footsteps of British Columbia and Ontario governments, which have already released modelling projections for COVID-19 in their provinces. 

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro told the legislature last Wednesday that modelling work started about a month ago, work that was "very difficult" due to a lack of available Canadian or Alberta data.

"Now that we have Canada-specific and Alberta-specific information, I think that our modelling is getting quite sophisticated."

The future is never certain and experts say predictions can vary in accuracy.

Until more data is released, Hardcastle said it might be difficult for Albertans to know if their physical distancing measures are paying off.

"I think certainly there are countries where the situation is more alarming," she said. "I think the U.S. is an example where there are several states that you still see large public gatherings going on. And so I expect that we'll have done a better job than some of those jurisdictions that are still at this stage permitting large public gatherings and those sorts of things.

"But I do think it's too early to tell how big this will get in Alberta and in Canada, and also how long it will go on for.

"We don't yet know if they're going to pay off, and know how well we have done in terms of flattening that curve. And so we're in an interesting position where we're having to trust policymakers to make the right choices without seeing that immediate payoff. And I think that that can be difficult."


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