The "index case" for a COVID-19 outbreak at a Mill Woods care home was a resident who had seen nine different visitors in the previous two weeks, a spokesperson for Shepherd's Care said Tuesday.
The outbreak has since infected 102 people — 61 residents and 41 staff. Eight residents have died in the outbreak and 59 cases are still active.
Zachary Penner, executive director of communications with Shepherd's Care, told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Tuesday that the outbreak is a consequence of a July public health order to relax visitation rules in long-term care facilities.
On July 23, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, eased restrictions on visitors at long-term care facilities that had she had put in place in April.
"It's not a coincidence that since then, we've seen a significant increase in the number of outbreaks in care homes around the province," Penner said.
"So when we looked at the visitation patterns, we determined that our index case had actually seen nine different visitors in the previous two weeks."
Penner said the first indication that COVID-19 was in the Mill Woods facility came on Sept. 22.
"We took immediate action to isolate all of the residents into their rooms and do immediate testing. We do have two floors of long-term care at that facility and we have successfully isolated the outbreak to the third floor."
New cases identified after the first resident tested positive are "attributable to spread that happened before we isolated everyone," he said.
Visitor screening protocols were in place at the time, but the "insidious thing about COVID-19" is that people who have the disease can shed virus for many days without showing symptoms themselves, Penner said.
"If you were positive and not showing symptoms, you would pass all of those screening checks," he said.
"So really, the only thing we have that prevents the spread at that point is the proper use of personal protective equipment and social distancing, and unfortunately we suspect that there was a breach of that, and that's how it entered our facility."
Penner said he doesn't envy Hinshaw for having to make the decision to loosen visitation restrictions. He said she tried to find a balance between protecting long-term care residents from COVID-19 and meeting their social needs.
"Certainly she's faced with, you know, the safety and security of residents on one hand, but there was also a tremendous outpouring of frustration from individuals that felt that the restrictions were far too restrictive and that they couldn't come in and see their loved ones in care," he said.
"So I think no matter which way you fall on that risk spectrum, there's going to be people that are unhappy with the decision. And the decision was made to kind of adopt an approach that did interject a bit more risk."
Penner said his grandmother is in care and living with restrictions on visitors.
"I would love to run up to her and pull my mask up and quickly give her a kiss and tell her I love her, but unfortunately something as simple as that can trigger an outbreak like the one we've seen."
No visiting is allowed at the Mill Woods facility during the outbreak.
Penner said said Shepherd's Care has suspended all in-room unsupervised visits at all of its other sites. But other visits, where staff can properly monitor for social distancing and use of personal protective equipment, are ongoing.
Shepherd's Care has been working closely with Alberta Health Services, he said.
"We believe we've successfully contained that outbreak," he said, adding that the rate of new cases "has slowed down almost to zero."
It could still be three or four weeks, he said, before AHS declares the outbreak officially over.