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Athabasca case rate highest in Alberta by far

As COVID numbers rise, mayors, reeve and MLA ask for patience and cooperation

Editor's note: The Athabasca Advocate spoke to the officials in this article last week, when the total number of cases of COVID-19 in the Athabasca region was reported at 105. We will continue to update information and reaction as it becomes available. The numbers are accurate as of April 5 at 4 p.m. A version of this article, without updated numbers, will also appear in the April 6, 2021 print edition of Town and Country This Week.

ATHABASCA - The number of positive cases of COVID-19 in the Athabasca region more than doubled over the long weekend.

Today, April 5, the Government of Alberta's geospatial map shows 234 active cases of the virus within the borders of Athabasca County — up from 105 at the last geographical update April 1. Eleven of them are reported in the Boyle area.

Since the last week of March, the Athabasca region has gone from low single digits (as low as one) to having the highest active case rate in the province several times over. The active case rate is now 1789.9 per 100,000 people in an area of 13,076 people. The next highest is in Ponoka County with 170 cases at 617.7 per 100,000, with 27,524 people.

There have been 432 total cases, 197 have recovered and there has been one death since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. The main concern is in the last few days with the sudden spike in cases. The number of variant cases in a specific region is not publicly available, but the Advocate has confirmed five.

At least 73 of those positive cases are linked to Edwin Parr Composite School (four of those are at Landing Trail Intermediate School) as of the latest update from Aspen View Public Schools April 2. 

The province reported 3,987 new cases since Thursday, bringing that number to 10,582. Four more deaths were also reported, of 1,998 it total. There are 312 people in hospital and 76 of those are in intensive care.

The alarming rate in the rise of COVID-19 numbers has local leaders of the Athabasca region concerned, but hopeful that everyone will start to follow the regulations that are in place to stop the spread.

“When we talk about the sudden surge in cases in the Athabasca region, it just shows how it can spread and it's a race between vaccinations and spread,” said Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken in an April 2 interview. 

He noted it does not matter if the cases are from variants or not, because people need to remain cautious either way. 

"It’s still highlighting the need to be diligent the next little while,” he said. “I think people in Athabasca and the region (should) take notice and step up their game a little bit more, just out of all the cases that showed up in just the last week, really 10 days. We went from no cases to all of a sudden over 100. I mean wow, that went quick.” 

van Dijken added he feels the vaccines are helping as the ages of the new cases are more in the younger age groups, but that does not mean we are out of the woods quite yet. 

“It does appear that the vaccines are helping us, because I take a look at the whole North Zone and over 80 per cent of the cases are in people that are under 50 years old — two thirds of them are under 40,” he said. “I think what we're seeing is it's a long run — people have been in for the long haul and they're just needing to get about, but we've got a couple months of due diligence left here and more and more people getting vaccinated and I think we're in a good spot. The hardest part of any race is trying to finish it. That's where we're at right now.” 

Town of Athabasca mayor Colleen Powell said April 3 more testers are arriving in Athabasca to help verify the numbers, but people need to be patient waiting for results.

“They are sending more testers and we'll get more information and, again, the problem is people want answers now,” she said. "I do know that the variant has got the healthcare community quite concerned because it is more virulent and it's affecting younger people. By younger people, we don't mean necessarily teenagers, we're talking about people under 65.” 

She added people also need to be patient waiting for the science, but to still trust it over the misinformation that can be found out there.. 

“Science takes time, it's not something that you're going to have an immediate answer for, and I think that is what concerns a lot of people,” said Powell. “We need answers. Yes, we do, but we've got to wait until we get reliable answers. Data will shift because this is brand new — this variant is new.” 

Athabasca County reeve Larry Armfelt also is urging residents to trust the science. 

“To just state my biggest concern rather than picking an example is that when you have an individual or a group of individuals that are non-cooperative with the science, then I believe that they are putting themselves at risk and everybody else,” he said April 3. “To me this is not an emotional thing, it's got nothing to do with religious beliefs, it's science.” 

Colin Derko, mayor of the Village of Boyle, also said he wants everyone to pull together to do their part to get through the pandemic. 

“These are very difficult times, but I know with 100 per cent certainty that our community is extremely strong and resilient, so we will get through this together,” he said. 

Derko added in an e-mail April 3, the human toll is not just about health of people, but impact on businesses. Small communities can turn into ghost towns as businesses end up closing though the constant up and down of the pandemic. 

“Myself and our entire council is always concerned about the health and safety of our community, but beyond that we are all very concerned about our business community,” he said. 

Powell agreed residents are frustrated at seeing big box stores remain open while Mom and Pop stores are forced to shut down and there are differences, even between neighbouring communities, on what is open. 

“I was getting calls about ‘Why isn't the Multiplex open or the pool open — Westlock's is’ so, I can sense that frustration and the need for people to want to get out and be with other people and (think) 'Gee it's only my next-door neighbour, what the hell is wrong with that?’” said Powell. 

Armfelt said he follows the precautions not only because of the science, but because it’s like paying it forward; that he is keeping his neighbours safe in the hope others are keeping his loved ones safe. 

“Our grandchildren are not living here in Athabasca, but I just follow the protocols of what science tells me to follow, because I hope that the people that are living next door to my grandchildren are doing the same thing,” he said. “And if we don't follow the advice of scientific professional people, we can't help but harm other people. Right from Day 1 ... somebody said ‘We're all in this together’ and we're also all in this to find a way to make things better.” 

None of the elected officials wanted to lay blame for the rise in numbers provincewide on those who have resisted the mandatory restrictions that have been in place since December, or those who continue to spread rumours and lies about the virus, vaccines and the motivation for the restrictions. Like everyone else, they all just want it to be over, and encourage everyone to help make that happen. 

“Misinformation is unfortunate, but I believe that what we're witnessing is — as we see it more and more in the younger age category — is that there's a lot of people that are just tired,” van Dijken said. “Tired and want to get on with regular life and so I'm not going to judge them … but I just want to encourage them that we're just about there. Just hang in there for another month or so, and we can get more people vaccinated and will be in a much better position.” 

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