Everything you need to know about COVID-19 in Alberta on Friday, Feb. 19

The latest:

  • Alberta reported 415 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, compared with 277 new cases reported Wednesday and the highest daily total new cases in about a month.
  • There were 4,887 active cases on Thursday, up from 4,857 the previous day.
  • The testing positivity rate is 4.2 per cent, up from 3.9 per cent the previous day.
  • Seven more people have died, bringing the total number of deaths in the province to 1,805.
  • There are 362 people in hospital as of Thursday, including 55 in intensive care.
  • As of Thursday, the province has confirmed a total of 239 cases of people infected with the coronavirus variants — 232 of the strain first identified in the U.K. and seven of the strain first identified in South Africa.
  • Roughly half of the cases that have been fully investigated have been found to be linked to travel. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, says that’s a concern because it means the other half are considered community acquired — and a third of them have an unknown source.
  • Alberta Health told CBC News that nine schools have had a case of someone with a variant attending while infectious and three schools have had in-school transmission. 
  • As of Tuesday, 155,500 doses of the vaccine had been administered. There are now approximately 58,000 Albertans who are fully immunized after receiving both doses. Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro and Premier Jason Kenney are scheduled to provide an update on the distribution of vaccines at noon Friday. CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary will carry it live on the websites and Facebook.
  • Shandro said at a press conference Thursday the province now has capacity to investigate and trace all contacts for up to 1,500 COVID cases each day. He and Premier Jason Kenney are scheduled to provide an update on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the province at noon Friday. CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary will carry it live on the websites and Facebook.
  • Hinshaw is not expected to give an in-person update on Friday, but CBC News will post the latest COVD-19 numbers when Alberta Health posts them online later on Friday.
  • Mayor Naheed Nenshi says Calgary is going to need extra help from the federal government once the COVID-19 emergency is over. In a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, the mayor requests that the upcoming federal budget include specific measures to help ensure that that downtown Calgary recovers.
  • Hinshaw encouraged people who test positive to work with contact tracers to help control the spread of the illness. She said on Wednesday there has been an increase in Albertans who aren’t participating in the contact tracing process. So far for February, 1.3 per cent of confirmed cases did not answer or return calls.
  • A complex set of rules posted online has flummoxed organizations that want to secure their frontline workers $1,200 in pandemic danger pay.  At issue are a complex set of criteria, posted online late Wednesday afternoon, describing the eligibility for the benefit. The government’s website at first said non-profit sector workers were ineligible for the benefit. Then, on Thursday, under fire from the Opposition, two cabinet ministers issued statements saying non-profit sector employees who work for organizations that receive provincial funding will qualify for the benefit.
  • The closure of the Olymel pork-processing plant due to an outbreak of COVID-19 has left hog farmers scrambling to find somewhere to take their animals. According to Alberta Pork, 40,000 to 50,000 pigs go through the Red Deer facility each week. Executive director Darcy Fitzgerald says even a two-week closure will create a significant backlog. “If we look at coming back by at least March 1st, we’ll probably be about 130,000 pigs backlogged,” he said.
  • WestJet says it’s temporarily cutting service to some communities in four provinces as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hammer the airline. The Calgary-based airline says it will stop four routes until June 24, including Calgary to Medicine Hat, starting on March 21, and Calgary to Lloydminster, starting on March 19.
  • The University of Lethbridge says it’s anticipating “positive shifts” related to COVID-19 health measures in coming months, and is in the planning stages for a significant return of students to the campus for the fall 2021 semester. 

(Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

See the detailed regional breakdown:

Here is the detailed regional breakdown of active cases as of Thursday.

  • Calgary zone: 1,734, down from 1,823 reported on Wednesday (47,594 recovered).
  • Edmonton zone: 1,287, up from 1,270 (50,746 recovered).
  • North zone: 799, up from 719 (10,151 recovered).
  • South zone: 333, down from 338 (5,863 recovered). 
  • Central zone: 729, up from 697 (8,844 recovered).
  • Unknown: 5, down from 10 (100 recovered).

Find out which neighbourhoods or communities have the most cases, how hard people of different ages have been hit, the ages of people in hospital, how Alberta compares to other provinces and more in: Here are the latest COVID-19 statistics for Alberta — and what they mean

Here are the latest Alberta COVID-19 stories:


Nenshi asks Ottawa for post-pandemic assistance

Mayor Naheed Nenshi says Calgary is going to need extra help from the federal government once the COVID-19 emergency is over.

While other parts of the country are expected to economically boom as the pandemic subsides, Nenshi says Calgary likely still won’t be firing on all cylinders.  

Mayor Naheed Nenshi says while other parts of the country may see rapid economic improvements after COVID-19 eases, that may not be the case in Calgary. (Mike Symington/CBC)

“The fundamentals are still weak here and I just need the federal government to understand that,” he said on Thursday.

Nenshi told city council that he’s made a request to the federal government to do more to help Calgary in its 2021 budget.

“Calgary has a larger GDP than six provinces and it is the economic capital of a vast region. So where Calgary goes, so goes most of Alberta, so goes Saskatchewan, so goes vast portions of British Columbia,” he said.


Alberta can investigate 1,500 COVID-19 cases each day

The province had only 50 contact tracers when the pandemic began last March but now has about 2,300, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday at a news conference.

That workforce includes a dedicated team of 50 tracers who work only on cases of people infected with the more contagious variants of the coronavirus, he said.

“The team has made incredible gains,” Shandro said. “In January alone, case investigators and contact tracers from Alberta Health Services closed a total of 21,216 investigations. That’s the highest monthly number of COVID-19 investigations closed to date.”  

Alberta Health can now contact anyone who tests positive within 24 hours, he said. On Jan. 12, the team contacted and traced 1,003 cases in 24 hours.

Dr. Mark Joffe, an Alberta Health Services vice-president and medical director for northern Alberta, said the province is in “a much better place” than it was in December.

“New cases have been trending down across the province over the last several weeks,” he said. “In recent weeks, we’ve seen individuals with COVID-19 [who] have had about five or six close contacts each. This compares with back in November when the average was about 15 close contacts for each individual.

It has been 10 days since some restrictions were eased. Now provincial health officials are keeping an eye on the numbers to determine the next phase of reopening.

Alberta’s phased approach to reopening is directly tied to hospitalization numbers and influenced by other indicators, such as infection rates and case counts. 

If the number of people in hospital remains below 450, restrictions listed under Step 2 of the reopening framework could be loosened as early as March 1.


Kenney defends vaccine rollout plan as critics call for more details

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is defending his government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the face of criticism that virtually no details have been shared regarding its distribution plan.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi weighed in on Tuesday, saying he believes — despite all of the province’s talk about supply issues and Ottawa’s failure to solve them — that the bigger problem is going to be distribution.

“In other words, before we know it we’re going to have more supply than we have ability to put in peoples’ arms. So our goal needs to be to solve that problem now before it happens and make sure we are ready to do massive vaccinations as soon as supply is available,” he said.

Premier Jason Kenney explains that the next phases of vaccine rollout can’t happen until the province has enough vaccine and the efficacy of yet-to-be approved vaccines may change the province’s approach. 1:44

Kenney said Wednesday that he doesn’t see the need for a big rush. He said the province will lay out its priority lists for the next phases of the vaccine distribution program “pretty soon” after studying what other provinces are doing. 

“The problem now is supply, we effectively ran out of supply for all intents and purposes in mid January. So, that is our primary focus. I will say, when it comes to the subsequent phases, a lot of this is quite fluid,” he said. 


Closure of Olymel plant due to outbreak means backlog for pork producers

The closure of the Olymel pork processing plant due to an outbreak of COVID-19 has left hog farmers scrambling to find somewhere to take their animals. 

“I am very concerned. We are lucky we have a few weeks, but I know farmers, they have to ship next week,” said Arnold van Ginkel, a pork producer who ships about 140 pigs from his farm in Leslieville to the Olymel plant every week. 

That’s just a fraction of the plant’s capacity. 

Quebec is dealing with a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in dozens of workplaces like the production line at this Quebec-based meat processing facility. (Radio-Canada)

According to Alberta Pork, 40,000 to 50,000 pigs go through the Red Deer facility each week.

Executive Director Darcy Fitzgerald says even a two week closure will create a significant backlog. “If we look at coming back by at least March 1st we’ll probably be about 130,000 pigs backlogged,” he said.

Farmers will be looking at options that include finding spare room and feed or shipping the animals to Manitoba or to the U.S. in order to avoid euthanizing them. 

Fitzgerald says that adds costs to an already struggling industry, with most producers not turning a profit since 2015. 

As of Tuesday, an outbreak at the Olymel Red Deer Food Processing Plant was linked to 343 cases, 200 of which were active. 


Increase in Albertans not participating in contact tracing process

Since last fall, Alberta Health Services has increased its capacity to do contact tracing, Hinshaw said.

Until December, less than one per cent of confirmed cases didn’t answer the phone or return calls from contact tracers.

But since then, the province has seen a “concerning” rise in such incidents, Hinshaw said, and in January tracers had problems contacting people in about two per cent of positive cases. So far in February, tracers have encountered that problem in about 1.3 per cent of cases.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, says she is concerned by a small uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases who didn’t answer the phone or return calls from contact tracers. 3:22

“Contact tracing remains essential to our ability to keep Albertans healthy and to keep driving our cases downward,” she said. “To be successful in containing COVID spread, contact tracing relies on a partnership with Albertans who test positive or who have been exposed to COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, recently, we have seen a small but significant increase in the number of people who aren’t participating with the contact tracing process. It may be tempting to think that not providing information will make COVID go away. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.”


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