ATHABASCA – A comment from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney regarding the COVID-19 outbreak at Edwin Parr Composite School and the Athabasca region as a whole caught a lot of people off guard last week, including Athabasca mayor Colleen Powell.
At a noon press conference April 12 to announce the province would be moving into Phase 2C of its vaccination rollout, the premier was asked about school transmission numbers and the rising case rate in younger demographics, and responded that the cases of in-school transmission around the province was low and attributed the spread of the virus to socializing outside of school.
He then went on to mention Athabasca specifically, and the outbreak at Edwin Parr Composite School that shut down the town’s three schools to in-person learning through April 16.
“Again, it was out-of-school transmission,” said Kenney. “In one case, a bunch of kids from one of those schools were brought together by their parents for a birthday party. And apparently, the virus had a 100 per cent attack rate at that birthday party. All of the kids who came to that birthday party got sick and so it was social activities outside the school, that that led to that transmission.”
He went on to say: “the problem there does not appear to be in-school transmission. I think the teenagers in particular have a tendency to socialize, understandably.”
Kenney later repeated the claim at an April 13 press conference, but when asked for specifics afterwards the premier’s office said he misspoke about the location, but mayor Powell’s phone has been ringing off the hook ever since.
“It completely blew me away,” she said. “He said that this outbreak was caused by a birthday party and somebody from some radio, TV and other outlets have been ringing the phone off the hook asking if it was caused by a birthday party and I said we don’t know. And now it has been turned into a big, hairy deal, and the reason I’m a little upset is … he was trying to make the point that these large gatherings, do spread the disease, and they do. The fact that we may or may not have had this caused by this birthday party, I still don't know.”
Several people connected to EPC told the Advocate they heard of several gatherings involving students, including a birthday party, occurring over the last several weeks, before Kenney’s comments, but the sources could not provide numbers and did not attend themselves. Whether these alleged gatherings resulted in the scenario the Athabasca region is in right now, will likely never be known.
The region, which includes the town, county and Village of Boyle has had the highest active case rate per 100,000 residents in the province for nearly three weeks, reaching over 2,000 with 266 cases at one time, but as of Sunday, is currently third at 879 with 117 active cases.
Numbers are falling from their apex, but that’s no reason to forget the mandatory restrictions that are still in place to hinder the spread, said the mayor.
“We are in a difficult situation. The numbers are going down, but they're not going down rapidly.”
Active cases related to EPC topped out at 103, with nearly 800 students, staff, bus riders and bus drivers identified as close contacts, who were told to stay home, leading to the operational shut down of the three schools.
As that number continues to fall, there is no way for Aspen View Public Schools to tell how many have recovered or the severity of each individual's experience. Students from EPC, Landing Trail Intermediate School, and Whispering Hills Primary School returned to in-person learning April 19 after each school was thoroughly disinfected during the down time.
At their April 14 board meeting, AVPS trustees voted to require all bus riders across the division to wear masks, including students in Kindergarten to Grade 3, which were initially exempt.
Trustee Dennis MacNeil said he is aware of hospitalizations and personally knows people who “are very, very, very ill as a result of this outbreak.”
“I think the more we can protect our kids and protect our community by masking the better,” he said. “I think when we started looking at how incredibly dangerous this virus actually is, and the effect that it has on people, I don't think we take anything lightly.”
MacNeil made the motion to have students in all grades across the school division wear masks while riding the bus citing the outbreak in Athabasca as proof the outbreak could happen anywhere.
“I think what's good for one child is good for all students and I think we need to err on the side of caution. So, I would like to make a motion that we make it mandatory for all children to wear masks from the moment they get on the bus until the moment they get off.”
For Powell, the experience of the town in this scenario reinforced a lot of the things she has been saying since last spring, which is that doctors, scientists and health professionals are the ones we should be listening to for their actual expertise, including Alberta Health Services. Once a believer that regional restrictions may be a better fit than blanket restrictions across the whole province, but this experience has made her reconsider.
Kenney may have been trying to make a point and really did misspeak, but that means very little to Powell at this point.
“I don't care if Kenney made a mistake or not, it's a small story. The bigger story is the pandemic itself, what are they doing, are these rules working?” she asked. “And if you look at the way this government treated the pandemic for the first eight, nine months, it wasn't until they got lambasted over the Christmas travel and losing Christmas altogether that the tone changed,” she said.
Files from Heather Stocking
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