One month in: Looking back at how Alberta has handled COVID-19

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health delivered news on March 5 that Albertans did not want to hear. 

The province had reported its first presumptive case of COVID-19.

“We are taking this extremely seriously,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said. “Public health measures are already being put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.”

That day, the Alberta government asked anyone who had taken a Grand Princess cruise in the previous two weeks to self-isolate for 14 days after their return. That marked the beginning of a series of increasingly stringent restrictions on social and economic activities that have changed daily life in Alberta.

A month later, it’s amazing to look back and ponder the unprecedented speed at which those measures were implemented.

“They really have been doing things on the fly and doing things astonishingly quickly,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University. “Anyone familiar with government, the pace and the evolution of policies, will be aware that this is something that can take years.”

That lightning-fast decision-making, on both the federal and provincial levels, has changed Canadians lives in previously unimaginable ways. 

Travel restrictions. Provincial and local states of emergencies. Businesses closed. Financial aid for those out of work. University campuses closed.

And in what Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange called an “unprecedented” decision, the province shut down schools and daycares on March 15.

Those decisions sparked a societal shift in how people interact with one another. 

The closure of schools and childcare centres forced many parents to work from home.

Over the course of the last month, social gathering limits have progressively been scaled back from 250 people, to 50 people, to the current 15.

Then on March 27, Premier Jason Kenney ordered all non-essential businesses to close. 

“The actions we are taking are tough but necessary to protect public health,” the premier said that day. 

“We understand that behind every such decision lies tens of thousands of jobs and businesses, that will throw people into economic and financial anxiety.”

Over the past month, thousands of Albertans have been laid off. And the already bleak forecast for the oil industry has worsened, with record-low oil prices. 

But health experts emphasize that the social restrictions, the public health orders, are necessary.

Most of Alberta’s initial cases of COVID-19 were travel-related. But as the virus spread, health officials raised the alarm about community transmission, and those cases became an area of focus for health officials trying to slow the spread of the virus.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw has been giving updates every week day about the COVID-19 outbreak. (Art Raham/CBC)

The province reported its first COVID-19 death on March 19.

“As heartbreaking as this news is, it was expected,” Hinshaw said that day. “This is a dangerous virus.

“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.”

Public health modelling predicts the number of COVID-19 cases could peak in Alberta in early May.

This is a dangerous virus– Dr. Deena Hinshaw

At that peak, the model predicts, about 250 people would be in Alberta intensive care unit beds with COVID-19.

Kenney called last week was the “toughest” so far in dealing with the virus in Alberta. “Things will get worse before they get better,” he cautioned.

What about the next few weeks?

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

What is certain, according to experts, is the need for governments to provide the public with timely and complete information.

So far, Williams said, federal and provincial governments seem to have earned the public’s confidence, and many Albertans seem satisfied with the work being done by the province.

Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams says many Albertans appear to have confidence in the provincial government’s handling of COVID-19. (Colin Hall/CBC)

“I was struck by the fact that it looks like people would be appreciative of what both the federal and provincial governments were trying to do,” she said. 

“And again, this is somebody who’s watched the rollout of policies at the government level for some time being really struck by how much they’re doing and how quickly. How amazing it is that they’re able to put together the kinds of responses that they are.

“Now it’s down to the implementation that might be different.”

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