BOW VALLEY – The escalating number of COVID-19 cases, including in Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore, is placing mounting pressure on Alberta’s already stressed health care system.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said the the province’s health care system has limited capacity in terms of skilled staff and number of beds, and while it can currently handle the extra cases, it comes at a big cost.
“Currently, the system is able to accommodate these extra COVID cases by stopping some other services,” she said, noting there will continue to be a rise in demand for hospitalization and intensive care in the coming weeks.
“If we see increasing COVID cases going into hospital, the only way to provide the space to care for them is to stop doing other services … Albertans who need other care could end up having their health conditions worsen as these COVID cases rises.”
On top of that, another big impact on health care capacity is staff availability, including nurses and doctors and other health care workers.
With strict COVID isolation and quarantine requirements to protect acute care and prevent spread of the virus, Hinshaw said staff who have been exposed to COVID-19, who have symptoms, or who have COVID, cannot work.
“As community transmission increases, more health care workers are exposed in various settings, or perhaps have family members exposed,” she said.
“This impacts the system, as services cannot be operated without skilled workers to provide them.”
The COVID-19 case count is rapidly rising in Banff and Lake Louise, more than doubling from 23 to 50 cases in just five days by Tuesday (Nov. 17). Canmore’s numbers are also growing, with 16 cases as of Tuesday.
One person died over the weekend from the Municipal District of Bighorn, where there are four active cases.
Of the 10,068 positive cases in Alberta as of Tuesday afternoon, there were 268 patients in hospital, including 57 in intensive care. The number of people who have died in the province is 432, including 20 who died in a 24-hour period Nov. 15-16.
“These are not just numbers; these are people,” Hinshaw said.
“As our cases rise, our deaths will rise. Each one of these people will be missed and mourned.”
Banff National Park and neighbouring Canmore are now on the long list of communities on enhanced status, meaning there are several additional restrictions in place such as a 15-person limit on indoor and outdoor social and family gatherings from Nov. 13-27.
“The numbers continue to be concerning,” Hinshaw said.
“Now is not the time for parties. If you are in a community under enhanced status, it is imperative that you do not have unnecessary visits from those who do not live with you.”
Banff town council will review the current COVID-19 status in the townsite, its mandatory mask bylaw and other potential measures that may be necessary at its next council meeting on Monday (Nov. 23).
In the absence of enhanced testing or tracing in Alberta or a provincial-ordered lockdown, Banff Councillor Peter Poole said re-introducing a state of local emergency – which gives the Town of Banff added powers – should be assessed as an option.
“We have to be able to evaluate whether a state of local emergency would be effective in doing what we could locally for the safety of our residents,” said Poole, who was the first local politician to raise red flags about the emerging pandemic back in January.
“If it looked like a state of local emergency would enhance the safety of our residents, then we have to know if we can do it on our own, or if the province is likely to remove our authority to do so,” he said.
To avoid a lockdown, Coun. Poole said he believes there needs to be “extraordinary public health assets deployed rapidly” by the province as suggested by epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists for testing and contact tracing.
“That’s the way to hunt this virus down … the alternative route is total lockdown,” Coun. Poole said.
“First, we don’t have a reserve army of testers waiting to be deployed to hot spots around the province like firefighters would be for a wildfire. Secondly, we know contact tracing in the province is overwhelmed,” he added.
“If we can’t have enough testing and contact tracing, then there’s really no options for the province other than lockdown,” he said, noting that proved successful at curbing COVID-19 in Melbourne, Australia, and a Belgium lockdown is showing positive results.
When asked if the province is considering a lockdown, or even an Alberta-wide mandatory mask bylaw, Hinshaw earlier this week stopped short of saying yes, but noted there are a variety of options under consideration.
“We’re looking at evidence from other jurisdictions around the country and around the world, at the measures that have been effective,” she said.
“If we don’t see a change, absolutely, we will have to put in additional measures.”
Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said the Town of Banff is thinking of the people who have tested positive in Banff, noting the municipality offers support to them, their families and employers.
She told Mountain FM on Nov. 17 that the cause of transmission in Banff is very clear – social gatherings are the reason for the spike in cases.
“Places of work are not the source of transmission. That is why we are asking all residents to stop house parties and any gatherings at all outside of work,” she said.
“People are asking why we’re not recommending any further restrictions in Banff beyond the measures put in place by the province, and it’s because a forced closure of businesses could take away some of those locations that are the safest in our community.”
Sorensen said there are no plans at this time to put check stops in place to prevent visitors from entering the townsite, as was done in spring.
“We know why this is happening and it’s about social gatherings,” she said.
“At this point, there has been no discussion by council or from our ECC (Emergency Coordination Centre), as far as I know, as far as reinstating that tactic at this time.”
Some businesses temporarily have closed their doors due to COVID-19 – either as a precaution to keep staff and customers safe or because there was a positive case linked to the business.
The list is getting longer as case number increase, but some short-term shutdowns include Earls Kitchen and Bar in Banff, Laggan’s bakery in Lake Louise and the Village Market, among others.
“The health and safety of our associates and our community is our top priority,” wrote the Village Market in a social media post. “We will reopen as soon as conditions permit.”
Banff Caribou Properties – one of the Banff townsite’s largest employers – reported five employees within its total workforce tested positive for COVID-19.
Gord Lozeman, the company’s president and CEO, said these employee cases are dispersed among various businesses and do not relate to an outbreak at any particular business – and all affected staff are doing well and expected back to work soon.
“We were prepared for this, and have worked closely with AHS to implement aggressive contact tracing notifications and isolation protocols necessary to deal with them. All of our contact tracing tests have come back negative,” Lozeman said.
“The only conclusion that we derived from our contact tracing is that cases have been spread through social gatherings and cohabitation, not hotels and restaurants where COVID mitigations are already firmly in place.”
At Banff Post Office’s retail area and box lobby, Canada Post is limiting entry to one person per household per visit. In addition, on Mondays through Fridays, the first hour of the day from 9-10 a.m, is reserved for seniors, people at high risk and parents with small children.
The provincial government’s new restrictions for areas on enhanced status, which are in place Nov. 13-27 – include a mandatory 15-person limit on social and family indoor and outdoor gatherings.
All restaurants, bars, lounges and pubs will be required to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and close by 11 p.m.; and wedding and funeral ceremonies are limited to 50 seated, with receptions where people mingle limited to 15 or fewer people. In addition, all faith-based organizations are asked to limit attendance to one-third capacity at any service.
Additional measures include a ban on indoor group fitness classes, team sport activities and group performance activities in Calgary and the surrounding communities of Airdrie, Chestermere, Okotoks, Rockyview County, MD Foothills, and Red Deer.
Although this specific restriction does not apply to Banff, Lake Louise or Canmore at this time, officials say residents need to take extra measures to avoid this type of restriction being imposed in the Banff region.
“Everyone must behave as if they are COVID positive and people around them are potential transmitters of the virus, and follow the new restrictions,” said Silvio Adamo, the Town of Banff’s emergency services director.
Adamo said residents must adhere to restrictions under enhanced status, and basic safety protocols to prevent overburdening the health care facilities and keeping the Banff community safe.
“We are asking Banff residents to stop holding any house parties, private social gatherings in other facilities, and any get-together – big or small – where people are not maintaining physical distancing and not wearing masks,” he said.
“We must follow these new restrictions to stop the spread of the virus if we want to avoid further restrictions in our community.”
Hinshaw said she has been in touch with police chiefs across the province to beef up enforcement.
“I have written a letter to police chiefs across the province asking for their help in enforcing the current measures and doing our best to step up the reinforcement of the importance of them,” she said.
RCMP in Lake Louise were quick to send out a letter to the community alerting them that fines of up to $1,000 would be issued if people were caught violating provincial health measures.
Sgt. Gerald Walker, Lake Louise’s detachment commander, said COVID-19 made its long anticipated arrival in the community last week, and the “numbers are anticipated to increase at a rapid rate.”
“There has been some indication that some local people have not been abiding by the health regulations, which puts the entirety of Lake Louise at risk for their health, safety, employment and way of life,” Sgt. Walker said.
“Please obey these orders and let’s do our best to keep each other and the community as safe as possible.”
Hinshaw acknowledged that additional restrictions under enhanced status are not easy.
“Whether you arranged for your employees to work from home or temporarily closed your fitness studio, or your hockey game, yoga class or choir practice was cancelled, or you participated in a wedding, funeral or faith-based service virtually instead of in person, or you postponed a movie night at your house with friends or a birthday dinner with extended family, thank you for taking action and embracing the importance of making these sacrifices,” she said.
“We did not make the decision to implement these measures lightly.”
The rising number of cases strains the health care system in many ways, including in contact tracing, with Hinshaw noting each case now has about 15 close contacts within their infectious period.
“That means with about 1,000 new cases a day, there are 15,000 people every day who are new close contacts,” she said.
“It is impossible to make phone calls to each one, which is why AHS has changed their processes and is using technology like the online portal to speed up this work.”
Hinshaw said if people start to follow public health measures, along with any additional restrictions in communities on enhanced status, Alberta could start to see good results in the next one to two weeks.
“The measures in place right now are literally a matter of life and death and the choices Albertans are making now will determine our future in a few short weeks,” Hinshaw said.
Mayor Sorensen thanked the Banff business community and residents for following the restrictions in place.
“The vast majority of residents are following the rules, wearing masks, and maintaining social distancing, and I thank them as well,” she said.
“I’m just asking anybody who’s not to stop it. Smarten up. This is serious.”