Catholic and public schools, as well as churches and places of worship, are expected to remain open as Alberta caps off a dynamic week of efforts to contain and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Six new cases were identified on March 13, bringing to 29 the total number of cases in the province. Over 200 cases have been confirmed in Canada. The virus has resulted in more than 5,000 deaths worldwide.
All of the Alberta cases are travel-related or involved close contact with a traveller. One patient was in stable condition in hospital, while the others were at home in self-isolation.
“We continue to take aggressive public health measures to limit spread in Alberta. However, I expect new cases will continue to be identified in the coming days,” Alberta’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said during her daily update.
“The best thing we can do to stop COVID-19 is to practise good hygiene. Most importantly I want to really underline anyone who is feeling ill with cough or fever should stay home.”
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith advised Catholics on March 13 that the elderly, anyone with an underlying health condition, and those who feel even slightly unwell are excused from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass.
The Alberta government says the coronavirus risk remains low.
Anyone with symptoms are asked to call Health Link at 811 for assessment and possible testing. More information is available on the Alberta government’s COVID-19 information page.
With March break approaching for schools in Alberta, Hinshaw said there are no plans to close them, but she recommended that school and sports activities with large crowds be cancelled.
Ontario and Manitoba did close schools as a way to prevent the spread of COVID, but Hinshaw said the World Health Organization – which declared the virus a global epidemic – has determined that’s not the only way to contain the virus.
“Given the current situation in Alberta, the fact that any school closure would need to be in place for months, not weeks, to be effective, and the fact that students may still be at risk of spreading infection in settings beside schools even if schools were closed, I have advised that school closures not be implemented at this time,” Hinshaw said.
“I know that many parents and teachers are worried about the risk of COVID in schools. In some other provinces that have chosen to close schools, they have not taken the other aggressive measures that we announced.”
The Alberta government has asked organizers to cancel any events that would have more than 250 attendees. This includes large sporting events, conferences and community events. It does not extend to Catholic churches, other places of worship, grocery stores, airports or shopping centres. However, several parishes in the Archdiocese of Edmonton have cancelled group events other than Mass.
Any event that has more than 50 attendees and expects to have international participants, or involves critical infrastructure staff, seniors, or other high-risk populations should also be cancelled, Hinshaw said.
Travel outside Canada is not recommended.
Earlier this week, Archbishop Smith went into self-isolation at home after experiencing symptoms of a slight cold, and pending a test for COVID-19.
Preventive measures were taken in the Archdiocese, including replacing handshakes during the Sign of Peace with a bow, nod, or “Peace be with you.” Holy water fonts will stay empty, and consecrated wine will not be distributed from the chalice as part of Holy Communion.
Catholics will still be free to receive Communion on the hand or the tongue. Public health experts have advised the Archdiocese that there is no greater risk of infection by reception on the tongue.
The Archdiocese urges Catholics to practise healthy hygiene by washing hands with soap or using hand sanitizer regularly, staying home from Mass if they are sick, covering their nose and mouth if they have to sneeze or cough, and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Parish missions should be cancelled if they were to be led by a priest from outside Canada, the Archdiocese said. Parish missions and non-Mass events such as Stations of the Cross or Penitential Services should be cancelled if more than 250 people were expected to attend.
Other Catholic dioceses have taken different measures.
In the Archdiocese of Vancouver, attendance at Mass or any other Church events is restricted to a maximum of 250 people. In Toronto, masses are cancelled for this weekend in part because of them exceed that number. Quebec’s Catholic bishops have cancelled weekend masses until further notice.
Plans continue at Newman Theological College in Edmonton for a March 20-21 conference focusing on its namesake, the recently canonized St. John Henry Newman. The Newman conference coincides with the 50th anniversary of the theological school.
Hinshaw said schools, day cares and post-secondary institutions can remain open.
Nevertheless, classes at St. Joseph’s College, the Catholic college on the University of Alberta campus, as well as the University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge temporarily suspended classes. Classes continue at NAIT and MacEwan University.
In other developments, Edmonton city council voted March 13 to suspend its meetings until March 30 as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recreation centres will remain open but attendance at smaller facilities will be limited to 250 people.
“I know that many Albertans are on information overload,” Hinshaw said.
However, by slowing the spread of the virus, Hinshaw said it reduces the number of active cases and allows health, government and school officials as well as vaccine manufacturers time to respond without being overwhelmed.