A deep dive into Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers

Your pandemic questions answered in a CBC Calgary Facebook Live panel discussion.

CBC News Calgary November 10, 2020

With COVID-19 case numbers continuing to sharply rise in Alberta, CBC News hosted a live discussion on Facebook with a panel who has been following the pandemic closely.

It included CBC data journalist Robson Fletcher (top left), CBC health reporter Jennifer Lee  (bottom left), and Dr. Craig Jenne, (b0ttom right), an infectious disease expert at the University of Calgary.

The CBC’s Andrew Brown (top right), hosted as the panel members answered questions from viewers.

 CJ  = Craig Jenne.  JL  = Jennifer Lee.  RF  = Robson Fletcher.

This conversation has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length.

Is it true that there will be thousands of daily cases by Christmas if we don’t change our behaviour?

 CJ:  I would have to agree. We’re looking now at pushing 600 cases a day. We’re talking two months away. Still, unless things change, unless these curves begin to flatten, we will see that.

We’re hoping it doesn’t have to be mandated or legislated. But if we reduce our contacts — not our social contacts, but our physical contacts — if we limit those cohorts, as asked by the province, if we step up our mask game, so we’re not wearing it under the minimum recommended circumstances but anywhere where we can’t maintain physical distance. If we look at what are our truly elective activities. Should kids be in three, four recreational sports at this particular time? Probably not, as much as we would like it.

 RF:  Looking at all these numbers from Alberta, across Canada and around the world, since March, one thing that’s struck me is how predictable some of this stuff is.

As Craig said, if things don’t change, the trajectory of the spread is quite predictable.

The question is, will behaviours change, have behaviours changed? And the data we’re seeing is always sort of lagging behind what’s happening in the real world, so it’s giving us a picture of what happened a week or two ago.

But yeah, that’s what’s striking to me, is that it’s really quite predictable. The question is, will behaviour change?

What is meant by R-value? Why is it important and what is it here in Alberta?

 CJ:  Basically, an R-value in a nutshell is how many people we can expect one infected person to transmit the virus to. So you can imagine an R-value of 1. So with each sick person only one additional person gets sick, and the number of infected people in the community would stay pretty consistent. R-values getting above one mean that each infected person is spreading it to more than one person. This is where we get our exponential growth.

Can we get more detailed information about community spread of cases?

 RF:  This is actually something that Dr. [Deena] Hinshaw actually mentioned in her prepared remarks at her Tuesday briefing. She said she’s working with AHS to try to bring more detail into the public realm. There are some issues, as there often are, when it comes to confidentiality. But she said Alberta Health is working with AHS on bringing more of that detail out. She said it’s still a work in progress and didn’t really offer a specific timeline, but it’s something the province is working on.

I’ve heard that question from a lot of people and we just don’t know, now, some of those answers.

 CJ:  This is obviously critical information to have if we want to have targeted restrictions. The more we know about where people are getting the virus allows us to better focus the resources. I think one of the difficulties we’re having is that there has been an increasing trend of reluctance of people indicating where they may have been exposed.

With deaths so low, why the need to crush our economy? Why don’t we live with the virus?

 JL:  Politicians and public health care experts would argue that our health-care system will be overwhelmed and quickly. And if you look at the numbers of hospitalizations and ICUs, we are now at a critical point. We’ve hit an all-time high in COVID hospitalizations.

And there’s the human dimension. If we just live with the virus, there will be countless deaths.

 RF:  It’s a tough question, but I would point out a few things. One, deaths aren’t so low. We’re back at the highest rate of deaths we’ve seen in the pandemic to date. They are relatively low to some other jurisdictions, notably the United States, but we’re back to almost four deaths per day, which is as high as we’ve seen, ever.

Two, things can get out of control really fast.

The virus looks to be out of control in Winnipeg, and that came out of the blue in a place where everything looked to be fine not too long ago.

There are pros and cons between having restrictions and not having restrictions, but it’s not an all or nothing thing. It’s tough no matter how you slice it.

 CJ:   is a weird virus, a very challenging virus. And simply looking at a hospitalization or mortality column, I think, really underestimates the impact this does have on health.

As was pointed out at the beginning of this discussion, it has obviously an impact on the economy and on the mental health of people who are not infected. But we need to look at the bigger picture, not simply hospital cases versus jobs in the province, if we want to understand how to best look after our neighbours.

What do we know about how COVID-19 compares to the seasonal flu?

 CJ:  One of the biggest things that some people were hoping for, but does not seem to be panning out that way, is that COVID-19 does not appear to have a seasonal low time. So unlike the flu, this is less impacted by the weather, less impacted by the season. So, that’s one big risk.

Perhaps the single biggest difference is that we actually have a treatment for flu, or we have a preventive measure. And that is, we do have an effective vaccine program that has been shown to keep people out of hospitals.

The viruses themselves, COVID appears to be more deadly. And that’s a problem.

In Alberta we’ve already lost more people to COVID this year than in an entire typical flu season. So these are all stark warnings that this is not simply another flu.

Why do you think some people are so selfishly ignoring guidelines?

 CJ:  We are, for the most part, at least early in the pandemic, a victim of our own success. People hear voices on radio and on TV saying this could get very bad, and throughout July, August, it didn’t get very bad. We did a fantastic job of keeping numbers down. And I think that really lulls us into a false sense of security.

What further strategies are there to control new cases in Alberta?

 JL:  We are hearing a lot of calls for more targeted lockdowns. I’ve talked to a lot of doctors and infectious diseases experts who are saying, given what we’re seeing with the numbers, maybe we don’t move to a provincewide lockdown but bring in some more targeted measures.

So, an expert I spoke to the other day said, ‘I’d really like to see those mandatory restrictions in Calgary and Edmonton come down even further.’ This person was saying perhaps from 15, which is where they are now for social gatherings, to 10.

Other folks are saying, maybe for a short period of time, shut down places like restaurants and gyms in targeted locations. A lot of people would push back against that.

But I think, overall, what I’m hearing is calls for more of these targeted, and more severe targeted restrictions, even if they’re temporary, just to try to bend that curve.

Source CBC News Calgary


Also see
Experts fear Alberta hospitals will be unable to cope with COVID surge CBC News
How Alberta’s COVID-19 numbers compare to the rest of Canada CTV News

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