Health officials and long-term care facilities are working to contain Alberta's first outbreak of COVID-19, in a Calgary nursing home, but one person who has a family member in the affected centre says the response has been poorly handled so far.
On Tuesday, the province announced a woman in her 80s who was living at the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre died of the disease.
As of Wednesday evening, four more residents and one staff member had tested positive. Nineteen residents are showing symptoms of COVID-19 and are awaiting test results.
Families not notified
One woman whose husband is in that facility said she found out about the death about 20 minutes before it was announced in a news conference, and learned through that news conference about the other infections and possible cases.
"So not not only on top of the shock of finding out that it was in the nursing home after they'd known about it since the 12th, we had to deal with listening to the report from Dr. Hinshaw saying that there was also 11 others with symptoms," said the woman, who CBC News has agreed not to identify because she fears repercussions for speaking out.
"That never came from the nursing home," she said.
The woman points out that the care in the facility is "exceptional" but she questions why information was so slow getting out and why it took so long to work to contain the outbreak.
'We didn't have a choice'
She says patients were not appropriately separated despite claims by Revera, the company that runs the facility.
The woman says if she had been notified right away that a staff member developed symptoms on the 12th, she would have taken steps to screen her husband and get him home.
"We didn't have the choice," she said. "We didn't have the chance to be able to offer suggestions."
There are 144 people living in the McKenzie Towne facility and likely all of them are at greater risk from COVID-19 compared with the general population.
"These are our most vulnerable population and the numbers show that one in six of these individuals over 80 years of age will die from this virus," said Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary.
Current restrictions at homes
Unlike other jurisdictions, the Alberta government has not imposed a blanket ban on visitors, but it has limited visitors to one per resident and has mandated screening for all visitors.
The only exception is when a resident is dying, but even then only one visitor at a time is allowed in.
Those rules might have to be stiffened, says Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto.
"Alberta might be very close at this point, because of this outbreak, to actually say we're now going to follow suit with Ontario and B.C. to implement this measure because this may actually help save more lives," she said.
The woman whose husband remains in the McKenzie Towne care centre worries that workers in the facility have been working in other homes as well, spreading the virus amongst the vulnerable residents.
"With this community spread, it's just going to be uncontrollable if they don't stop that now," she said.
Preparations at other facilities
Mike Conroy, the president and CEO of the Brenda Strafford Foundation, which runs three homes in Calgary and one in Okotoks, says his organization has already implemented policies that go beyond provincial mandates. He adds he welcomes more stringent measures, including restrictions on staff working at multiple sites.
"We are doing screening — and we have now for a couple of weeks — of our staff, including temperature checks, for both symptoms and travel history," he said. "We have restricted visitation since the 15th of March."
Only those whose loved ones are dying are permitted to visit, he said.
In addition, the organization is preparing for the worst-case scenario and looking at isolation wards to prevent the spread of the virus in a facility.