Alberta could see up to 800,000 COVID-19 infections in 'most likely' scenario
EDMONTON -- Alberta could see as many as 800,000 COVID-19 infections and up to 3,100 deaths by the end of summer with current public health orders and physical distancing recommendations, new modelling data shows.
In a 15-minute televised address to Albertans on Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney discussed the new projections, the province's increasingly fragile economy and the plan to get back on track.
Kenney began by sending condolences to families of the 26 people who have died in the province due to COVID-19 before shedding light on how Alberta is doing in the fight against the disease.
"Our per capita number of recorded infections is the second-highest in Canada, after Quebec, but that is in part because our brilliant scientists and lab technicians are conducting one of the highest levels of COVID-19 testing in the world," Kenney said.
However, Alberta's curve is similar to countries that have successfully slowed down the spread of the virus like South Korea, he said.
AHS DATA SHOWS PROBABLE, ELEVATED SCENARIOS
The probable scenario is that infections will peak in mid-May, according to modelling done by Alberta Health Services.
"From the beginning of the outbreak to the end of summer we could see as many as 800,000 infections, and between 400 and 3,100 deaths," Kenney said.
Factoring in the government's last population estimate of 4,371,316 in 2019, it means more than one-in-six Albertans could contract COVID-19.
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Under a less likely elevated scenario, infections would peak at the beginning of May with as many as one-million positive tests and between 500 and 6,600 deaths.
Kenney provided a much more dire outlook for the province if physical distancing was not practiced and public health orders were not issued. If those key steps weren't taken, the province could have seen as many as 1.6-million infections and 32,000 deaths, or 640 deaths per day, the data shows.
"I know that these numbers can be overwhelming, but these models are not a done deal," he said. "I want Albertans to see them as a challenge."
He said one encouraging figure is the relatively low number of people who have ended up in intensive care due to COVID-19.
At 31 admissions, Alberta's rate is "much lower" than the other large provinces of Ontario, Quebec and B.C., Kenney said.
Kenney thanked Albertans for practicing health recommendations like physical distancing and proper hand-washing, saying the measures have helped push the curve down in the province.
The premier also said he would provide more details Wednesday on plans to expand capacity at hospitals, including opening more acute care beds, ICU spaces and ventilators.
"For now, let me say we are confident that our health system will be able to cope, and that we have the supplies on hand," he said, adding the province has freed up $500 million for Alberta Health Services.
HEALTH ORDERS TO REMAIN UNTIL END OF APRIL, DISTANCING UNTIL END OF MAY
Kenney said while he understands concerns about the economy and business owners not being able to pay their rent, public health orders limiting groups and non-essential services will remain in place until at least the end of April.
"As hard as this will be, it is the only ethical choice when thousands of lives are still at stake," he said.
Physical distancing recommendations should remain in place until at least the end of May, the models suggest, though Kenney admitted he hoped they were wrong.
Once Alberta has reached its infection peak and new cases decline, the province will implement a "Relaunch" strategy to phase in economic activity, following countries like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.
Included in the strategy are a more "aggressive" mass testing system of up to 20,000 tests per day, to identify positive cases and those with immunity more quickly.
Kenney also advocated for stronger border screening, criticizing the federal government's decision to "wait so long to close our borders, especially from countries with high levels of infection."
Quarantine orders will be strictly enforced and may involve the use of smart phone apps "when appropriate."
Masks will continue to be recommended in crowded public spaces like on public transit.
WILL ENERGY PRICES FALL BELOW ZERO?
While health outcomes are a significant part of what Kenney called the "triple threat" of COVID-19, he also discussed two other important parts of the crisis: a global recession and collapse of energy prices.
"Families worry about just paying the rent of the mortgage and putting food on the table until you are able to return to work," he said. "Or whether there will be a job for you to return to when this is over."
He warned that the economic downturn, "the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s," would be felt for years to come because the crash in energy prices affects Alberta's economy more than other provinces.
Western Canadian oil has so far fallen below $3 per barrel and it's possible that as inventory surges elsewhere in the world, Alberta energy will "hit negative prices," Kenney said.
"It has been made worse by a predatory price war led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are trying permanently to damage North America’s energy industry…That is why we have begun discussions with US leaders about a coordinated defence of North American energy to protect us from the reckless actions of those regimes."
It also means Alberta's budget deficit of $7 billion could nearly triple to $20 billion this year alone.
But Kenney touted recent decisions, such as the province's $1.5-billion investment in the Keystone XL pipeline and the appointment of the Economic Recovery Council, as moves to help secure Alberta's "economic destiny."
NOTLEY: GOVERNMENT MUST ‘SPARE NO EXPENSE’
Reacting to Kenney’s address shortly after it concluded, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said keeping cases low requires everyone’s assistance.
“Our ability to keep these numbers low is within our power and forms a shared responsibility for all Albertans,” Notley said.
Notley said the province must act quickly on several fronts since the pandemic is projected to reach its peak in May.
“Those who are there, handling this pandemic, caring for these burdens must have all the personal protective equipment they need…We cannot expect these people to care for us, if we don't take steps to care for them.”
Notley also highlighted her belief that more needs to be done to protect vulnerable citizens like the elderly and those experiencing poverty and homelessness.
“We need our government to centralize coordinate and spare no expense to get ahead of the obvious risks that these Albertans face,” she said.
“We can leave no one behind, this principle must drive all the economic choices that we make now and into the future.”
Looking to the future, Notley said Alberta will have to be ‘bold’ when it attempts to revive the economy.
“I think we need to be much more open-minded, we are, as I've said many times, we are the youngest, best educated, most diverse province in the country and we are capable of considering a broad range of ideas and pulling together the best for Albertans.”