Are large gatherings still a good idea in Alberta? Views vary as COVID-19 situation changes rapidly

Things are moving so fast with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to keep up with all the latest developments, let alone make informed decisions about what to do as the disease spreads rapidly around the world.

That’s something organizers of upcoming conferences and large gatherings — many of them planned and scheduled months ahead of time — have been grappling with.

Some have made last-minute decisions to call things off. The Alberta Medical Association, for instance, announced Wednesday it was cancelling a major policy-setting meeting, which had been set to start Friday. “As of today we believe there is too much risk in bringing this many physicians together,” the AMA stated.

Other events are still going ahead. The Business Execution Summit, set to begin Sunday in Kananaskis with “a sellout crowd of 300 business leaders,” is even hoping to expand that capacity in light of recent events.

“Yes, we are taking every precaution necessary to keep attendees safe; yes, the conference is going ahead as planned,” organizer Jeff Tetz said in a video message posted on Monday to Twitter.

“We only have a few seats left but we’re getting so many inquiries now from other events that have been cancelled and conferences that are on hold, that we’re trying to make room to free up more seats.”

Tetz did not reply to a request for comment late Wednesday afternoon, inquiring if this was still the policy. In the time between then and when this article was published, many things changed.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the entire country of Italy had already been largely locked down and it had been announced that all public schools in Seattle, Wash., will be closed for two weeks. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors had also announced that they will play at least one home game without fans in attendance.

By Wednesday evening, the NBA had suspended its season and U.S. President Donald Trump had announced a month-long ban on travel from Europe.

With the pace of developments around the globe, the people making decisions about large gatherings in Alberta find themselves in uncharted territory, with the sense that the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

‘The global situation is changing rapidly’

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, revealed Wednesday that five more Albertans have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the province’s total to 19.

“The global situation is changing rapidly and we all need to take steps to protect our own health and the health of those around us,” Hinshaw said.

“At the moment there is no evidence of community spread in the province,” she added. “All cases have been travel-related.”

Given that, she said the province is not specifically advising that mass gatherings be cancelled, but she said people who are at higher risk from COVID-19 — older adults and people with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions — should consider avoiding them.

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw speaks to reporters about COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. (CBC)

She also advised that “all travellers returning to Alberta from anywhere outside of Canada should consider limiting attendance at any large public gatherings.”

“With respect to stopping specific mass gatherings,” Hinshaw said, “that’s something that we’re discussing on our special advisory committee across the country. We do want to make sure that we’re consistently assessing those risks.”

However small those risks may currently be, the Alberta Medical Association wanted to avoid putting hundreds of doctors together in one room.

‘We’re in a serious situation’

“I think we’re in a serious situation and we need to react accordingly,” AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar said of the decision to cancel this weekend’s meeting.

“Even if the risk of infection is low, the possibility that one person might be carrying the COVID virus and not even know it could potentially result in the quarantine of 200 doctors and that would adversely affect our ability to provide health care for Albertans.”

Molnar said the AMA consulted with public-health officials who agreed it would be prudent to cancel the meeting, given the low risk but serious consequences of that particular gathering.

“They said, you know, if it wasn’t doctors, perhaps we wouldn’t have that opinion,” she said.

The Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) Spring Convention and Trade Show, meanwhile, is still set to start on Monday at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

At least, for now.

“We don’t see Alberta yet as a high-risk-type situation, so we’re going to continue going forward,” RMA president Al Kemmere said Wednesday afternoon, just as news about the physicians’ decision to cancel their meeting was breaking.

Does that give him pause?

“Yes it does,” Kemmer said, upon learning the news. “Well, it makes me wonder. I guess we may have to revisit this on a daily basis to just to make sure that we are being current.”

Other prominent voices are suggesting that the risk may be low right now — but drastic actions may be needed to keep it that way.

‘Embrace social distancing’

Andre Picard, the longtime health columnist for the Globe and Mail, put it bluntly: “It’s time to shut it down.”

“Canada needs to embrace social distancing,” he wrote.

“That means closing down schools (from daycares through to universities) temporarily, restricting access to hospitals and nursing homes, pulling the plug on mass gatherings like sporting events, curtailing all non-essential travel and urging companies to have their employees work at home.”

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said federal and provincial health authorities are preparing for a ‘range of scenarios,’ but that Canadians can take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. 2:08

That may seem “extreme,” he said, but “the time to prepare for the worst is now.”

“There is a saying in infectious disease circles that once you know where a virus is, it has already moved on,” Picard wrote. “With coronavirus in the community — in B.C., Ontario and in alarming numbers in that big country just to the south of us — we can’t stop the spread anymore. But we can slow it.”

Some organizers of mass gatherings in Alberta have already taken that approach.

Other events cancelled, postponed

The City of Calgary cancelled this year’s Safety Expo, an annual event that involves thousands of elementary-school students. The SPE Canada Heavy Oil Conference, initially set to start on March 18 at the BMO Centre in Calgary, has now been postponed to September. And a pair of international competitions at Calgary’s Olympic speed-skating oval have been cancelled due to the outbreak.

As of Wednesday, two private events — one industry conference and one fundraising breakfast — had also been cancelled at the Edmonton Convention Centre and one industry conference had been cancelled at the Edmonton EXPO Centre.

But some events are easier to cancel than others, depending on the timing, nature and scale of the gathering.

“The vast majority of events are going ahead as scheduled,” Lauren Andrews, director of marketing and communications for both of those Edmonton venues, said in an email.

“No major publicly ticketed events (concerts, tradeshows etc.) have cancelled or postponed at either venue.”

Putting the brakes on an event that has been in the works for months at the last minute can be a difficult decision to make, but health-care providers are hoping such moves will help “flatten the curve” of the COVID outbreak.

Hoping to ‘flatten the curve’

That’s a reference to the look of the potential epidemiological charts depicting the number of cases over a period of time.

Slowing the spread of the disease can prevent a large spike (indicated in purple on the chart below) over a short time period, which could overwhelm even the most advanced of health-care systems.

PHAC is using this graph to demonstrate the impact public health measures can have in ‘flattening’ the curve of a disease, slowing down virus transmission and easing pressure on the health care system. (Public Health Agency of Canada)

“You need to prevent this rapid rise in cases that will really impact our health system,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, told reporters.

“And by these social distancing measures and people doing the right things — particularly staying home if you’re sick, don’t spread it to other people — really does make a difference.”

So, how do you determine whether your gathering should go ahead, be postponed or cancelled?

“The risk of a mass gathering is determined not only by the number but also by who’s in attendance and what the activities are,” Hinshaw said.

“If an event has maybe 200 people but the activities they’re going to put them in really close proximity to each other and it involves people coming from countries around the world, that would be much higher risk than an event of the same number of people with lower-risk activities with only participants from Alberta.”

A decision-making guide for event organizers is available on the Public Health Agency of Canada website.

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