'Take this seriously': Edmonton man is Alberta's first COVID-19 fatality, total cases reach 146

An Edmonton man in his 60s has become Alberta's first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic, the province's chief medical officer announced Thursday.

Doctor who contracted virus at bonspiel raises new fears of community transmission

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief public health officer, has been conducting daily updates about the COVID-19 outbreak. (Art Raham/CBC)

An Edmonton man in his 60s has become Alberta's first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic, the province's chief medical officer announced Thursday.

"As heartbreaking as this news is, it was expected. This is a dangerous virus," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday as she announced that the man died late Wednesday, less than one week after being admitted to a hospital intensive care unit. 

"I know that this news is frightening and will add to people's anxiety," she said. "We are doing all we can to fight the spread of this virus. ... But to do this, we will need everyone's help. Take this seriously. Stay home, unless it is essential for you to go out. Now is not the time for social gatherings."

The number of confirmed cases grew by 27 in the last day, meaning there have now been 146 cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. Two are still in ICU. Hinshaw also confirmed that two individuals have made full recoveries.

Since March 5, when the first confirmed case was announced, the number of new cases announced has been steadily rising, with more than half being discovered during the last three days. 

Premier Jason Kenney said on Wednesday that the province expects the peak of the outbreak will likely come in mid-April, and drastic measures aiming at keeping the spread in check may need to be in place until the end of May.

Concerns from Edmonton bonspiel

The increase in community transmission — that is, cases of the virus are not linked directly to travel — is a serious concern, Hinshaw said.

Hinshaw said seven of the 146 cases are confirmed to have been contracted through community transmission, while an eighth is suspected. 

The man who died had some of the known health issues — such as hypertension, diabetes, heart condition, chronic breathing conditions and the like — that can boost the severity of coronavirus symptoms. But even more concerning, he had contracted the virus from someone in the community, she said.

The Granite Curling Club in Edmonton. (Art Raham)

Hinshaw learned of another big worry on Thursday morning — that of a Saskatchewan doctor who has tested positive for COVID-19, which he believes he contracted at a medical doctor's curling bonspiel last weekend in Edmonton.

The doctor believes he contracted the virus from another participant in the bonspiel. It's believed that the index case at the bonspiel was another Saskatchewan player who returned from a trip to Las Vegas, Hinshaw said.

There were about 72 curlers at the Western Canadian Doctors Curling Bonspiel, which took place at the Granite Curling Club in Edmonton. About 45 attended the banquet, Hinshaw said. 

She said it's not clear yet where these doctors came from or who can cover for them if they fall ill. "It is concerning and we're taking it seriously," she said.

At the time, the direction from the Alberta government was that gatherings of fewer than 250 people were allowed, as long as there were no high-risk health issues or involvement by someone who had travelled recently.

In a statement, the curling club said it had contacted all participants about health precautions including not shaking hands, sanitizing rock handles with provided wipes and frequently washing their hands.

The bonspiel ended on March 14 and the curling club independently decided the next day to close the club for the season.

Everyone who attended the event is now expected to self-isolate for 14 days, Hinshaw said. 

"It really shows us that, even with smaller numbers of people, you can get significant transmission," she said. "We'll have to watch closely to see how many additional cases we get out of this event."

Sanitize the cart, don't eat with your fingers 

Acknowledging that Albertans are feeling overwhelmed by social distancing and the threat of contracting the virus, Hinshaw said the government has pulled together some practical tips to staying safe, which are published on its COVID-19 website.

The tips cover typical daily events, like "grocery shopping, riding an elevator or going to a restaurant," she said. 

The suggestions include shopping during off-peak hours, wiping down the handles of baskets or shopping carts before and after using them, sanitizing your hands after getting off the bus, eating with utensils, avoiding finger foods and using your hands to eat, and avoiding "open snack dishes such as peanuts or candy."

Daycares, schools, colleges and universities and most other public facilities are closed. Public gatherings have been limited to no more than 50 people, throwing weddings into jeopardy and prompting funeral directors to advise grieving families to have private, "invitation-only" services. 

Casinos and bars that don't allow minors have been ordered not to operate. Many businesses of all sizes have chosen, or been forced by the lack of customers, to follow suit.    

Hinshaw noted that some concerned citizens are calling emergency lines to report organizations that aren't complying with the government's restrictions on closures or capacity.

"If you have concerns about an establishment, please do not call 911," she said. "We must leave this line open for true emergencies."

The justice department is working on a process for people to report their concerns.

"These measures are hard on all of us," she said. "I urge you to take them seriously. We must continue to stand strong together — even if from a distance."

Pharmacies to conduct screening

Alberta's pharmacists will start being paid by the provincial government to conduct coronavirus screening, and they may be asked to take on more responsibilities, including directly referring people for COVID-19 tests or supporting the Health Link 811 information line.

"We need to maximize the capabilities of our health professionals at this time," said Health Minister Tyler Shandro in a Thursday news release. "Pharmacists have knowledge and experience in infectious diseases such as influenza and in helping Albertans with their questions and concerns."

A new billing code means the pharmacists will be compensated by Alberta Health. 

As well, pharmacies now have the discretion to limit prescriptions to a 30-day supply to avoid potential shortages of some drugs, said the news release. 

Noting this move could result in an increase in dispensing fees for some people, the Alberta government is lowering its own co-payment and advised Albertans with other coverage to check with their benefits provider or speak to the pharmacist.