A couple walks along a downtown Red Deer street on Nov. 25, 2020, hours before new regulations were put in place by the province to contain the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Paul Cowley/ Advocate Staff)

YEAR IN REVIEW: Alberta wrestles with COVID-19 pandemic

The deadly COVID-19 virus hit home in Alberta in early March and 2020 ends with Albertans unable to celebrate the holiday season with extended family and friends.

Over the 10-month crisis, businesses retooled to make hand sanitizer, classes went online and graduation ceremonies were cancelled, rallies were held in support of health care workers, and some gathered defiantly to denounce the use of masks.

And let’s not forget the panic buying that led to shopping carts filled with toilet paper around spring.

Alberta’s first COVID case was a woman in her 50s, diagnosed in the Calgary area, reported on March 5. Health officials asked anyone from a Grand Princess Cruise to self-isolate.

Central Alberta saw its first case on March 11, and by April 1, the total number of provincial cases was 871, including 23 in Red Deer. The provincial death toll had reached 11.

“Today, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Alberta has been actively planning for every possible scenario. We know that COVID-19 is going to test our health system and emergency preparedness, but our system is preparing for that test,” said chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw on April 1.

Alberta had already closed all kindergarten to Grade 12 schools and daycares on March 15 as cases grew to 56, including the first case in central Alberta.

With evidence of community transmission, Premier Jason Kenney said Albertans needed to avoid all leisure travel and mass gatherings were no longer permitted.

“This is truly an unprecedented public health emergency for Alberta, and our government is committed to bolstering the efforts of our front-line health professionals with the resources they need to continue protecting the province,” Kenney said March 15.

Late summer, the province announced that students would return to the classroom in September.

“Our health and education officials have closely studied the experiences of other provinces and countries and they’ve developed state-of-the-art protocols for minimizing the risk of transmission at schools,” said Kenney, adding these protocols may evolve overtime.

“This does not mean there will be no (COVID-19) cases in schools. It means, rather, we’ve calculated the risks of reopening against the risks of continued closures, and we’ve made the best decision to serve the public interest.”

By Nov. 12, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions were at their highest point since the pandemic began and stricter rules were imposed for two weeks to reduce the spread.

At the time, Alberta had 8,305 active cases, with 225 people in hospital and 51 in intensive care. Deaths reached 393.

Central zone active cases stood at 347, and seven people were in hospital in the local zone. By that time, 1,019 central Albertans had recovered from the virus.

After coming into close contact with a COVID-positive person, Kenny worked from home in November when he announced new curfews at dining and drinking establishments in areas with more than 50 active cases per 100,000 people.

Other restrictions included a ban on indoor group fitness classes, team sport activities and group performance activities was also put in place where spread was rising.

Maximum attendance at wedding or funeral ceremonies was now 50, and all faith-based activities were limited to one-third capacity per service. Social gatherings were not be held within homes and attending gatherings outside people’s own community was not recommended.

But those controls were not enough to temper infections.

After four days of record-setting COVID-19 case numbers, the province declared a state of public health emergency and imposed stricter measures on Nov. 24.

Alberta reported 1,115 new cases that day, bringing active cases to 13,166. Total deaths reached 492, and 348 people were in hospital, with 66 of those in the ICU.

Central Alberta had 830 cases.

New provincial restrictions included limiting indoor social contact to those within the household. Outdoor gatherings were limited to 10 people. Students in grades 7 to 12 shifted back to online learning. Weddings and funerals will be limited to 10 people. Sports were on put on pause. Retail businesses and services were restricted to 25 per cent of occupancy. Masks were mandatory in all indoor workplaces in Edmonton, Calgary and surrounding zones.

Students in grades 7 to 12 shifted back to online learning.

Anyone who broke the rules was subject to fines of up to $1,000.

Unfortunately, all those measures were again not enough to bend the curve, and on Dec. 8, Alberta saw cases rise by 1,727 and more than 20,388 active cases. A total of 654 people were in hospital and 112 in the ICU. The death toll had climbed to 640.

Consequently, more measures were put in place for four weeks until after the holidays.

“We are now at a place where viral transmission is so widespread in the community, that it does not any longer matter how careful business operators are,” Kenney said.

“We are at a place where we must take these dramatic measures to reduce general, social interaction. It’s the only way we can get on top of this.”

Albertans were told to keep Christmas gatherings to just their household. A province-wide mask mandate and no social outdoor gatherings went into effect.

Working from home was mandatory unless their physical presence for operational effectiveness was required.

Retail services were reduced to 15 per cent capacity. In-person dining at restaurants and bars was barred. Lounges, casinos and bingo halls were also closed.

Closures included indoor recreation facilities, fitness centres, pools, spas, gyms, studios, indoor rinks, personal wellness services, like hair salons, nail salons, massage, tattoos, and piercing.

On Dec. 14 Alberta received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine. First vaccinations went to intensive care unit staff and respiratory therapists and eligible continuing care staff in Edmonton and Calgary.

In a mid-December Facebook live video, Kenney said he hopes by the end of February the government will have a concrete plan about what restrictions and measures will be in place so summer activities can be planned.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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