Elevators, Airbnb or something else? AHS investigates mysterious COVID outbreak in Calgary highrise

Alberta Health Services is investigating possible causes that led to a recent outbreak of COVID-19 at an East Village condominium tower.

At least 45 residents in the Verve highrise on Sixth Avenue S.E. have contracted the virus.

Many theories abound as to what could have caused the outbreak, including contaminated high-touch surfaces, the elevators or Airbnb units in the 25-storey building.

"We've been able to find some connections between some of the cases, but we haven't found a definitive connection linking all of them, which is a little bit unusual — and that's why we're really encouraging as many of the residents to get tested as possible," Dr. Jia Hu, a medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

"We have a working theory, and I think our working theory has to do with perhaps the elevators."

Alberta Health Services officially declared an outbreak at the Verve on June 22. The 288-unit building includes retail on the ground floor. Those living in the five-floor podium base have a separate entryway and elevator from those living in the tower.

"Because we don't have a definitive cause, we're investigating a number of possibilities," Hu said. "Ever since the COVID outbreak started all over the world, people have speculated about the possibility of transmission via the elevator or transmission via an HVAC system, or transmission via sewage type systems — which happened with the first SARS in the early 2000s.

"Right now, I think one of our leading theories is some sort of common space, perhaps the elevator.… And so we are doing a lot of environmental sampling."

Hu said elevators are tight spaces, with shared buttons. AHS is also looking at the building's water and sewage.

"The SARS that happened in 2003, the transmission mechanism was through what you might call the aerosolization of some of the sewage material in a condominium in Hong Kong," he said. "We are really looking for any clues as to what's causing this."

Erin Collins/CBC

One person with access to the building has her own theory, based on the idea that precautions have been lax at the Verve.

"We're about the only people wearing masks when we come into the building," said Cassandra Raugust, owner of All Details, a cleaning business that cleans four units in the condo tower that are used as Airbnb rentals.

"There's nobody that is cleaning the high-touch areas on a regular basis. You go into other buildings and you see cleaners wiping the doors, the elevator buttons, people are wearing masks, the concierge is wearing a mask. It's not happening at the Verve," Raugust told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.

Raugust said the building's Airbnb units have been open for business and rented throughout the COVID pandemic in Calgary.

"There's got to be some correlation, I would think, being that people leave Airbnb's much like a hotel room. You know, we are seeing that a lot of the guests are coming from Toronto and Winnipeg, in particular," she said. "And so without those checks and balances of somebody cleaning those high-touch areas every day, we can only do our part in those four air Airbnbs, right?"

Raugust said the only precaution at the Verve has been a sign that reminds people to limit the elevator to two people.

Hu said he's leaning away from the Airbnb theory.

"When people hear about Airbnb or hear about people coming in from other provinces, they sometimes jump to the conclusion that this would be the cause of the potential outbreak," he said.

"First of all, I don't think Airbnb should be operating in this building right now. But second of all, you know, from our preliminary testing, those residents who stayed in the Airbnb, none of them were positive.  So I wouldn't say it's automatically going to lead to some of these outbreaks."

Hu also said the positive cases were not all on the same floor. 

Aggressive cleaning

And he said that cleaning has been ramped up since the outbreak and management is now cleaning "aggressively" within the common areas of the building.

Raugust said building management needs to treat the space more like any other business.

"When we're going into restaurants we're seeing that they're spraying the customers' hands when they leave there. Every person that comes in and out the door is being wiped. I think property managers' companies are going to have to be accountable here, in that same realm," she said. "The high-touch surfaces being cleaned continuously, so it's like the restaurants."

Raugust got tested and was relieved to get a negative COVID result.

"And all my staff, too, which is fabulous," she said. "This is the third time that I've had to self-isolate from cleaning Airbnb."

Raugust and Hu did agree completely on one thing — the importance of wearing masks. Raugust would like to see masks being mandatory in highrise buildings like the Verve.

Hu agreed, as far as the building, but stopped short of saying they should be mandatory across Calgary.

"I don't know if I think that masks should be mandatory mandatory," he said. "It's like, what is the enforcement mechanism? I do think that people should wear masks. We recommend that people wear masks in the Verve condominium at all times."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.