Most new COVID-19 cases in Alberta are linked to social gatherings, ranging from formal events such as weddings, funerals and worship services, to simple family get-togethers, says the province's top doctor.
One of the largest current outbreaks in the province has been linked to the Bible Pentecostal Church in north Edmonton, which has now seen 75 active and two recovered cases. The church at 13054 112th St. had been linked to 15 confirmed cases during last Tuesday's update. The church has a membership of about 150 individuals.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said many Albertans have asked recently why Edmonton's case numbers have been steadily rising.
"The reasons are not new, and there is no one single factor," she said Monday at a news conference. "Primarily, we're seeing growth in cases linked to gatherings — weddings, funerals, family reunions, prayer meetings, informal gatherings of friends, backyard parties and community groups. There has been a particularly high attack rate in family gatherings."
Alberta reported four more COVID-19 deaths between Friday and Sunday and 258 new COVID-19 cases of the illness. The province reported 83 new cases on Friday, 106 of Saturday and 69 on Sunday.
By end of day on Sunday, there were 1,172 active cases across Alberta. The regional breakdown of active cases was:
- Edmonton zone: 631
- Calgary zone: 356
- North zone: 133
- Central zone: 26
- South zone: 20
- Unknown: six
Hinshaw said social connections are vital to maintaining good mental health, and it's natural for people to want to return to gatherings with extended family members.
"We are hard-wired to want to be together," she said. "However, even when organized by even the most well-meaning family members, it can be challenging to maintain physical distance with loved ones, or to ask your parents or grandparents to wash your hands, and to ensure that nieces or nephews who are sick stay away and don't come."
Families will want to move gatherings indoors when the weather cools, she said, and will be tempted to sit close together, to hug one another, and to share food.
"When we let our guard down, the virus has its opportunity. It is possible to hold a safe gathering, and when we do, we must be diligent in ensuring proper infection control protocols.
"Keep gatherings small, and meet outside rather than inside whenever possible. Asking someone to wash their hands, or reminding them to maintain two metres of distance is the most loving thing we can do for each other at the moment."
She urged hosts of any gathering to keep a written list of attendees for at least two weeks.
"It may seem silly to write down which family members come over for a visit, but quick access to accurate information speeds up contact tracing immensely. Keeping this type of information will not get people in trouble, and it has the potential to save lives."
Parents who chose to send their children back to the classroom later this summer should be "extra vigilant" when considering family gatherings with older relatives, Hinshaw said.
While children are less likely to have severe outcomes, they can pass the virus on to older family members, she said.
"Albertans have a civic responsibility to protect our elders, which unfortunately means considering moving to virtual visits with grandma and grandpa as school starts up. While this is a sacrifice, and it may be hard for grandparents, parents and grandchildren, it is the right thing to do to have these conversations as we move into this next phase of reopening."
The most recent numbers came after Alberta recorded 144 new cases of the illness on Thursday — the biggest single-day total since mid-July.
It was only the second time since May 1 that the province recorded more than 140 cases in a single day. The last time was July 17, when 167 new daily cases were reported.
Hinshaw used part of her news conference on Monday to speak directly to young adults.
"It is easy to feel invincible and believe that COVID-19 is only a concern for older Albertans," she said. "You are less likely to have severe outcomes from a COVID-19 infection, but because of the way the virus is spreading in your age group, you are now more likely to pass on this virus unknowingly, and to do so rapidly. We are seeing this in Edmonton right now. You must keep your circle of friends now to protect others from the virus.
"Your circle of friends needs to be doing the same. Sunday afternoon's brunch and Wednesday's dinner, combined with last night's drinks at a local bar and a midweek movie at a friend's house, each with a different group of friends, means a large number of contacts.
"While none of these activities individually are problematic if they are occurring with the same small group, when combining different friend cohorts, they create many exposures and contribute to contact-tracing challenges."
Alberta Health Services has also confirmed three positive COVID-19 cases among staff members on the Health Link team, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a statement on Monday.
A small number of staff are restricted from work due to contact tracing, Williamson said.
"There is no significant staffing impact to Health Link at this time. Staff continue with the daily fit-for-work screening protocols as well as increased vigilance with continuous masking, hand hygiene, the use of personal protective equipment and physical distancing.
"Health Link continues to address public inquiries and normal operations are continuing."
Health Link, staffed by nurses, provides 24-hour health advice and health information for Albertans who dial 811 on their phones. Staff work out of the Plaza 124 building at 10216 124th St. in Edmonton.
Williamson also confirmed a fourth COVID-19 case at the Edmonton Remand Centre.
The latest infection, which involves a staff member, is not linked to any of the previous cases, he said.
"The staff member developed symptoms following a shift on Aug. 11 and began self-isolation at home on that date. It is believed that the virus was acquired in the community."
Other outbreaks currently being tracked by the province include:
- Peter Lougheed Centre, Calgary, five active cases.
- Grey Nuns hospital, Edmonton, two active cases.
- Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre, three active cases, 80 recovered cases. (Two deaths over weekend, bringing total to 31).
- Deadwood, Alta., (prayer meeting), seven active cases, 10 recovered.
- Lilydale chicken plant, Calgary, 11 active cases, two recovered.