Good morning. It’s James Keller in Alberta.
Albertans will learn today how the COVID-19 crisis could unfold in the province, which is following the lead of other jurisdictions in releasing their pandemic modelling data.
The province has 1,373 cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, both of which have been increasing at a rapid pace, after reporting its first case about a month ago.
Premier Jason Kenney offered a glimpse at the numbers in a televised address last night, when he told Albertans that while the numbers of overwhelming, they had the power to change them.
Kenney said the province’s “probable scenario” would see infections peak in mid-May, with 400 to 3,100 deaths. If physical distancing measures aren’t as successful, that could increase to 500 to 6,600.
If the province had done nothing, he said those deaths could have reached 31,000.
“I know that these numbers can be overwhelming, but these models are not a done deal,” he said. “I want Albertans to see them as a challenge – perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation."
He said the quicker the province flattens the curve of COVID-19, the sooner it can reboot its economy. In the meantime, he said the province’s health system is equipped to cope.
He said public health measures could be in place until the end of May.
Kenney also painted a stark picture of the economic challenges facing the province.
He predicted Alberta could see an unemployment rate of 25 per cent, as it suffers the combined effects of the pandemic and an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. That has pushed oil prices to historic lows, with Western Canadian Select, the benchmark for Alberta crude, dipping below US$4 a barrel at one point recently. Prices have fluctuated widely in the past two weeks.
He has compared the challenge to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“I cannot overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, the economy and the financial security of Albertans,” he said.
Still, he said Albertans have made it through times of adversity before and they will make it through this pandemic.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
AROUND THE WEST
OVERDOSES: Fire departments in British Columbia have asked Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to reconsider her recent order restricting firefighters to only the most life-threatening calls, saying the unintended consequences put citizens at serious risk. The order means that firefighters are not responding to most overdose calls during the COVID-19 pandemic because they are not classified as requiring the most urgent response. It was made as overdose deaths spiked in Vancouver; city data obtained by The Globe and Mail list eight suspected overdose deaths in each of the past two weeks – the most per week since last summer. The figures have not been confirmed by the BC Coroners Service.
BC-ALBERTA BORDER: The Regional District of East Kootenay in British Columbia is calling for the province to close its border with Alberta to all non-essential travel, along with barring private and “backcountry” camping. Rob Gay, chair of the regional district, said he’s concerned that tourism and unnecessary travel from Alberta, as well as within B.C., could lead to outbreaks and put unneeded stress on small hospitals and communities.
COVID-19 TESTING: Alberta has decided to broadly expand who can get tested for COVID-19 to help curb the spread of disease in high-risk groups, raising questions about whether other provinces will follow suit. As of Tuesday, anyone in Alberta 65 and older with possible COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath, is eligible for testing. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced that testing will also be available to people with symptoms who work in group homes, shelters or as first responders, along with police, bylaw officers and federal and provincial correctional staff.
MASK MAKING: Canadian fabric companies are experiencing a rush of customers as Canadians make their own non-medical masks. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam on Monday issued new guidance on the wearing of masks in public. Citing new evidence on presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the new coronavirus, Tam said it is “reasonable” to wear a non-medical mask in public settings when physical distancing can be hard to maintain. Canadians choosing to wear masks are reminded of several important caveats. Health officials note there is no evidence that a non-medical face covering such as a homemade mask, bandana or scarf can protect the person wearing it, and should instead be considered an additional measure to reduce the likelihood of spreading one’s own droplets to others.
FOOD BANKS: Food banks in Western Canada are overhauling their operations as the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing rules have increased demand while straining resources. Physical distancing measures and senior citizens self-quarantining have reduced the number of staff and volunteers able to sort, prepare and distribute hampers to food bank users, who now have to call in advance to book their hampers at many places. The change restricts the number of people present at the depots at any given time – recommendations in both Alberta and British Columbia.
ALBERTA DOCTORS: Cian Hackett, who works in Rimbey, Alta., is among the handful of doctors who, over the past week, announced plans to leave their jobs or stop providing some services because the Alberta government cut physician pay on April 1. The doctors argue they are not taking these steps to protest against the changes, but because it no longer makes financial sense for them to carry on under the new fee structure. Some physicians have selected dates when the rollbacks will begin; others are waiting for the novel coronavirus crisis to pass. Any exodus would be particularly acute in rural communities. “As soon as this pandemic quiets down, I will be leaving Rimbey,” Hackett said. “That’s not a bluff."
A CACOPHONY OF APPRECIATION: So, the former Oak Bay district councillor in British Columbia dug up a trombone she hadn’t touched in 25 years, not since her inglorious days in the back row of her high-school’s band in the tiny Kootenay village of Windermere, B.C. To applaud the doctors, nurses and paramedics fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirby serenaded the Vancouver Island community of Oak Bay with the only song she could remember: When The Saints Go Marching In. The same tributes are happening in Vancouver, too. “We hear it,” says Donald Griesdale, a critical care physician at Vancouver General Hospital, the city’s largest hospital.
PULP MILL: Harmac Pacific, whose facility is located in Nanaimo, B.C., produces a type of pulp that is used by U.S. manufacturers to make products that include paper gowns, surgical masks and caps, some of which are then shipped to Canada. The company says one of those customers recently doubled its order, prompting the facility to shift its production to focus on pulp for medical-grade paper. The company has been singled out as an example of how dependent the two countries are on each other for medical gear and why any interruption could end up constraining supply in both countries.
ALBERTA’S HOMELESS: Calgary’s Telus Convention Centre started a trial run over the weekend, providing food and around-the-clock shelter for 50 people as it prepares to add another 250 people in the coming week. In Edmonton, the Expo Centre was transformed into an overflow shelter two weeks ago. The new spaces are opening as provincial and local governments across the country work to prevent outbreaks in crowded homeless shelters, where it can be difficult for residents to follow public health advice of staying two metres apart. In Toronto, the city is leasing hotel rooms while Vancouver is relying on its existing network of shelters. Meanwhile, Calgary is providing hotel rooms for people who are homeless and diagnosed with COVID-19, so that they can self-isolate. A hundred rooms have been set aside at a hotel – which is not being identified for privacy reasons – for people who have symptoms but aren’t sick enough to require hospitalization.
BARD ON THE BEACH: Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival has cancelled its entire 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cancellation means about 240 people will be laid off or losing work they were expecting this summer. Bard had considered a number of scenarios, including cutting the season’s offerings from four plays to two or even one, and starting the season later in the summer. But it ultimately decided it could not have proceeded responsibly, and made what it calls the necessary decision to cancel its full slate of more than 200 performances.
Justine Hunter on the ethical implications of the pandemic: “The province is seeking to ensure that health-care workers have priority access to any PPE it can access now. Dr. Kluge said it is appropriate that we give priority to protecting health-care workers because of the risks they must take to do their job. ‘When licensed health-care workers enter their profession, they de facto acknowledge this [risk] and accept it,’ he said. But we are asking a lot. In return, we have to do everything we can to ensure the health-care system isn’t pushed to the point that nurses and doctors here are forced to make those entirely terrible decisions.”
Blake Shaffer and Trevor Tombe on Alberta laying off 25,000 educational workers: “What was being suggested was the government faced a liquidity crisis – the inability to borrow more, requiring it to ration available funds to highest-value uses. If true, this would be a serious turn of events for the wealthiest province in Canada, albeit one beset by a severe economic downturn. The trouble is, it’s not true.”
Andrew Coyne on finding hope in the daily COVID-19 case numbers: “Of course, should behaviour change as governments would wish, actual outcomes will be less terrifying than the models had originally forecast. This is not evidence that the policy was unnecessary: Rather, it is evidence that it worked. And it is working. In most countries where the epidemic hit hardest and earliest, growth rates have dropped substantially.”
Robyn Urback on Dr. Theresa Tam’s new advice on wearing a mask: “Countless Canadians have been taking transit, working essential jobs or stopping into stores for necessary food and medicine – all with their mouths and noses uncovered, heeding what was then the advice of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. There’s no way of knowing how much virus was shed during that time. Dr. Tam’s earlier contention that masks are useless on asymptomatic people was outdated the moment she said it. (To be fair, the World Health Organization still maintains masks are only necessary for healthy people when taking care of a sick person.)”
André Picard also on Dr. Tam’s new mask advice: “No matter how much they back into it, that’s a pretty significant policy change after years of saying ‘masks don’t help.’ Policy makers should own it. There are good reasons policies are shifting, as well as some limitations to the non-recommendation, slash, permissive statement. The advice about masks is changing because our knowledge of the coronavirus and how it spreads is evolving. That’s how science works.”