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Alberta's top doctor says more sites affected after E. coli outbreak

CALGARY — Alberta's chief medical officer of health says he has been made aware of additional daycare sites in Calgary where children have tested positive for E.
A daycare at the centre of an E-coli outbreak at several daycares is seen in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — Alberta's chief medical officer of health says he has been made aware of additional daycare sites in Calgary where children have tested positive for E. coli, saying in a statement late Friday that the facilities would be closed out of an abundance of caution.

But the province's health delivery agency later appeared to revise Dr. Mark Joffe's statement, saying in a news release late Saturday afternoon that most of the additional facilities faced only "partial closures" affecting specific classrooms at the facilities.

Saturday's statement from Alberta Health Services said initial results suggest the new cases affecting additional daycares are mostly cases of secondary transmission. It suggested they happened from affected people being in contact with children from the original daycares connected with the outbreak, or another possibility was children from the original daycares were in contact with the new facilities. 

One case is not yet connected, it said, and AHS is still investigating.

"What appears to have happened is that some parents who were at the affected facilities moved their children over to other daycares," Premier Danielle Smith explained during her provincewide call-in radio show on Saturday morning.

"The main message is for any parent who is involved in this initial outbreak, they have to be very, very careful that they're not inadvertently causing these kind of secondary infections and make sure that their kids are not playing with other kids until they've got their ... go-ahead that they're clear of E. coli."

The new facilities are Active Start Country Hills, the Scenic Acres location of CanCare Childcare, CEFA Early Learning Childcare - South, MTC Daycare, Renert Junior Kindergarten and Calgary JCC Child Care.

In addition, Vik Academy, which was part of original closures earlier this month and had reopened, now has classrooms 3 and 4 closed again as a precaution pending testing results.

Staff and parents of children attending the facilities were being contacted Saturday, AHS said.

AHS said there are a total of 342 lab-confirmed cases connected to the outbreak declared on Sept. 4, up five from the number of cases reported Friday.

It said that includes 23 cases resulting from secondary transmission.

Joffe had said in his earlier statement that the additional facilities would be "closed out of an abundance of caution." He said they would be required to be cleaned and sanitized, and all children would be tested to confirm their negative status before returning to the centres.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a social media post Saturday, before the clarification of partial closures was announced, that in some cases whole sites would not be closed if there was no exposure to children in certain areas or classrooms. She said that more details would be provided soon.

LaGrange said the province acted quickly to get Joffe's statement out, in order to ensure information was communicated as quickly as possible.

"We know that kids participate in weekend activities and we wanted to be sure they were alerted to the potential risk at their childcare facility and to be cautious," LaGrange's post explained.

Joffe's statement said it's crucial for parents who have children who attend the affected daycares to follow the guidance being given to them by health-care professionals. 

His statement also asked all daycare operators in the Calgary region to confirm the health and daycare history of children who are new to their facility.

Twelve children were still in hospital as of Saturday, 10 of whom have hemolytic uremic syndrome -- a complication affecting the blood and kidneys.

Six of those children were receiving dialysis.

During her radio program, Smith was asked by the moderator, and by a caller, why a central kitchen that investigators believe was the source of the outbreak had been allowed to continue operating after earlier violations were identified.

A report detailing health violations at the kitchen said improper sanitation, live cockroaches and issues around food handling were found following an inspection that was done a day after the outbreak was declared.

Previous inspection reports also found violations, including cleanliness and sanitation issues, an expired food handling certificate and inadequate handwashing facilities dating back to July 2021.

Smith explained that the kitchen, which Calgary's medical officer of health has said will remain closed until critical health violations are addressed, had been brought back into compliance following a review in April. She noted that Joffe told a news conference Friday that there's not a mechanism in the Public Health Act to permanently close a kitchen, and she said a review of the act will be done.

She said recommendations for changes to the act could be added to those from a panel she announced earlier this year led by former Reform party leader Preston Manning, which will examine any legislative reforms that should be considered coming out of COVID-19.

Smith stopped short of committing to call a public inquiry into the outbreak when asked whether one was needed, noting multiple inspectors are working on the case and that 45 different food products have been tested.

"Whatever form it takes, we do need to get to the bottom of it, and I want to wait until we get over the initial hump, make sure those kids are back home safely with their families, make sure that we've managed to mitigate any of the harm and are dealing with the long-term consequences, and then turn our attention to any legislative changes that need to be made," Smith said.

"We want to get to the bottom of it first, but make no mistake, there will be new regulations coming."

AHS said that while lab-confirmed case numbers continue to increase as additional test results come back from the lab, the number of patients in hospital is falling.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2023.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said CEFA Early Learning Childcare - North was one of the additional daycare sites in Calgary where children have tested positive for E. coli, but the Alberta government has corrected that to CEFA Early Learning Childcare - South.

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