Alberta's COVID-19 rates much better than most U.S. states, top doctor says

With much of the COVID-19 discussion in Alberta focused on plans to reopen schools later this summer, the province's top doctor says it's important to understand the context behind case numbers.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw tries to put context behind the numbers as province's schools prepare to reopen

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says she's concerned about the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the Edmonton zone. She introduced new voluntary measures on Thursday, in an effort to curb the spread. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

With much of the COVID-19 discussion in Alberta focused on plans to reopen schools later this summer, the province's top doctor says it's important to understand the context behind case numbers.

Over the past week, Alberta has averaged about two new cases per 100,000 population per day, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Tuesday at a news conference.

That compares with average rates of more than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 in Florida, Georgia and Texas, where school reopening issues have been identified, she said.

Alberta's daily new case rates per 100,000 are lower than all U.S. states except New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, which average about 1.5 new cases each day per 100,000.

"This indicates that we are in a different context than states where we are watching some of those issues take place," Hinshaw said. "And we need to strive to make sure our community transmission is as low as possible.

"Together we can minimize the risk to students and staff in schools and help our children regain this part of their normal educational and social development. For all of us, taking precautions is part of living in the new normal of COVID-19, and as always we are all in this together."

Learn from other countries

Hinshaw said other countries with low community transmission rates that have successfully reopened schools found there wasn't a "significant amount" of transmission in classrooms, even when distancing was not rigorously enforced among younger age groups.

"In Sweden, they kept their elementary schools open for the duration of their response to the pandemic," she said.

"Elementary school teachers in Sweden had a lower risk of getting COVID-19 than the general population, about a 30 per cent lower risk than the general population, and their class sizes were on average over 20 [students]. And they did not require distancing in that younger age cohort."

Hinshaw on COVID-19 transmission in schools

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Featured VideoAlberta's chief medical officer of health says Alberta has looked to other countries in developing its back-to-school protocols.

Because it will be harder to follow rules about masks and physical distancing in classes with younger students, Alberta has recommended using a cohort model, she said, where each class would be a cohort.

In that case, she said, schools shouldn't have multiple classes that come together, such as for an assembly. If a student or teacher were to test positive, fewer people would have to be quarantined.

"And also, we have seen from other jurisdictions that that younger age group does not seem to be as likely to transmit if the community transmission is quite low," she said.

Edmonton hotspot for cases

The Edmonton zone now accounts for more than half the COVID-19 cases in Alberta, according to the latest update from the province.

Alberta reported 89 new cases of the illness on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 1,169.

With 572 active cases in the city of Edmonton itself, the entire city is now under a COVID-19 watch.

A watch is triggered when an area of the province has more than 50 active cases per 100,000 population. With a population of 1,021,628, Edmonton has 56 cases per 100,000 population.

Asked whether there was a threshold for case numbers in Edmonton that would see school opening plans scaled back, Hinshaw said public health officials are closely watching the experiences of other jurisdictions around the world to determine whether case counts led to significant challenges for schools.

Ultimately the decision rests with the minister of education, said Hinshaw, though her department will make health recommendations based on what they learn from other countries around the world.

"There is no fixed threshold at this time," she said.

Though Edmonton has crossed the 50 per 100,000 active cases mark, she said, no additional public health measures are required at this time.

The province reported one more death on Monday, bringing the total to 225.

By end of day Monday, 48 people were being treated in Alberta hospitals for the illness, 11 of them in ICU beds.

Grey Nuns response

Hinshaw also praised the "quick actions" taken by of Covenant Health and Alberta Health Services over the weekend to respond after a staff member at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital tested positive.

The staff member was working on a unit caring for three people who had tested positive with COVID-19. Those cases were acquired in the community, not at the hospital, she said.

"Covenant Health closed the unit to patient transfers and discharges, took additional patient precautions, limited visitors to exceptional circumstances only and has been performing enhanced cleaning," Hinshaw said.

Labs across the province are now working to test about 90,000 teachers and school staff before classes begin.

Hinshaw announced on Tuesday that Shoppers Drug Mart and its parent company, Loblaws Canada, will now offer testing in communities across Alberta.

Under a new agreement with Alberta Health Services, within the next two weeks pharmacies in all 234 Alberta-based Superstore, Wholesale Club, Extra Foods, No Frills, Independent and Loblaws City Market stores will offer testing, she said.

That increases Alberta's testing capacity by about 3,000 to 4,000 tests per day, Hinshaw said.

"That would serve half or more of Alberta's teachers and school staff," she said. "We will need this added capacity, plus that of all community pharmacists who are already testing for COVID-19, if we are to test these 90,000 teachers and school staff in just a few weeks."