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1 death, 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as outbreaks declared at Calgary’s Foothills hospital

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One patient has died and 13 other patients and four staff members have tested positive amid COVID-19 outbreaks at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, according to Alberta Health Services. 

Fifty-seven staff members are currently in isolation, AHS announced on Monday afternoon.

AHS said two cardiac units and a general medicine unit are affected. 

The first case of COVID-19 was detected in one of the cardiac units on Friday, Nick Etches, lead medical officer of health for AHS in the Calgary Zone, said at an afternoon news conference. The first case in the general unit was found the next day. 

The cardiac units account for 12 of the cases, while the general unit has two. 

The patient who died was a woman in her 70s in the cardiac unit.

The province had earlier reported 14 cases among patients and one death but later clarified that the death was included in the patient case total.

“We have no evidence the two outbreaks are connected at this time,” said Etches, pointing out that the virus is still circulating in the community and the hospital continues to treat patients with COVID-19.

He said AHS continues to investigate how the virus entered the units and that the health authority is aggressively managing the situation. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said possible causes of the outbreak being investigated include reports of inconsistent masking in visitors or concerns that a staff member may have worked while symptomatic, but that nothing has been confirmed at this time. 

The statement from AHS said there is no increased risk to patients coming to Foothills. Anyone who tests positive is being isolated and treated in designated rooms, AHS said.

AHS said all at-risk patients are being offered testing, and contact tracing for anyone who may have been in contact with infected individuals is ongoing.  

“While we appreciate it may be difficult for some, visitors to the units are limited to only end-of-life situations until further notice,” AHS said in a statement.

Patient’s family complains they’re not being informed

Michelle Cairnsmith says her 82-year-old father is in one of the affected cardiac units and has tested positive. 

She says her mother found out there were possible cases on Saturday when she called the unit and was told she couldn’t visit.

Her father, who has congestive heart failure and cancer of the bladder, was tested that day. The family found out that an outbreak had been confirmed at the hospital by reading the news. 

Cairnsmith, who is now in isolation pending her own test results, says she’s frustrated. 

“We’re directly involved with this patient, and we’re being given no update,” she said.

Cairnsmith says she had been worried for her father throughout the pandemic, given his ongoing heart illness, and had developed plans with the family to protect him. She said they stayed away at first, then when they decided it was safe to visit, they maintained distance. 

“Because if he got it, it’s his death sentence. He’s done. He’s 100 per cent done,” she said. 

Work to limit the spread

Craig Jenne, an immunologist and microbiologist at the University of Calgary, said he’s not surprised there have been cases found at the hospital but that the outbreaks are bad news. 

“I’m very concerned. This is, ideally, what we’ve been trying to avoid all along,” he said. 

“We have to remember that we have a lot of different protective measures to keep the virus out of health-care situations, but as with any other system, there’s no such thing as 100 per cent.”

Jenne said the true test will be whether the systems put in place in anticipation of this kind of outbreak work to prevent further infections. 

“I think it’s safe to say the health-care system was not naive to think that this was never going to happen, so they do have mechanisms built in to try and rapidly identify and limit the spread,” he said. 

Jenne says the best way to prevent outbreaks in hospitals is to keep the number of infections low in the broader community. 

“As the numbers go up, we probably will see restrictions on visitors and entry into areas where there are susceptible patients,” he said. 

Dr. Rachel Grimminck, medical staff association president for the Foothills Medical Centre zone, said outbreaks in hospitals create a tremendous amount of uncertainty for physicians.

“It’s really difficult for health-care workers right now, a lot of emotional exhaustion, the risk of burnout, that’s further compounded by some of the political aspects going on in our province right now,” she said, referring to battles over fees that have been ongoing for months between physicians and the provincial government.

This is not the first outbreak reported in an Alberta hospital. Edmonton’s Misericordia had to shut its doors to incoming patients this past summer after an outbreak at that facility. 

In April, two staff in the maternity ward of Foothills hospital tested positive for COVID-19, but no patients were affected. 

There are currently 1,459 active COVID-19 cases in Alberta. Of the 51 people in hospital, nine are in intensive care.

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