The number of E. coli cases linked to an outbreak in Calgary daycares that started in late August appears to be levelling off, a “clear indication” the outbreak of initial infections has peaked, Alberta Health Services (AHS) said.
The official Opposition wants to see an independent inquiry into how hundreds of children were infected by a preventable disease. However, the premier appears to be standing by her comments about adding the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) outbreak to the review of the province’s COVID-19 response.
On Monday, AHS said there were 348 lab-confirmed cases connected to the outbreak, an increase of six from Saturday and 11 from Friday.
Twenty-seven of those have been secondary cases, up four from Saturday, but no additional secondary transmissions had been confirmed on Sunday, AHS said.
Calgary-area hospitals had nine patients in them, down 12 from Saturday, all with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe kidney- and blood-related outcome. Three patients were on dialysis, half as many as on Saturday.
“We are seeing clear indications that the outbreak related to the initial exposure has peaked,” AHS said.
Seven daycares remain closed after children from the outbreak were suspected of attending them:
- 1st Class Child Care Shawnessy main daycare room
- Active Start Child Care
- Cancare Children’s Centre Scenic Acres
- CEFA Early Learning Calgary South
- Renert Junior Kindergarten
- Calgary JCC Childcare
- Thornhill Child Care’s VIK Academy in Okotoks
Some children and staff are restricted from returning to MTC Daycare, pending a negative E. coli test and relief of symptoms.
The provincial health authority said 642 children connected to the outbreak have been cleared to return to daycares.
AHS declared the outbreak on Sept. 4.
The Alberta NDP wants to see the government conduct an independent, public inquiry into one of the worst E. coli outbreaks in Canada’s history.
Calgary-Acadia MLA Diana Batten said the kitchen suspected to be at the heart of the outbreak was allowed to continue to operate despite health inspectors finding multiple critical violations. Those violations were often addressed on the same day of the inspection.
“Clearly not enough was being done to keep our kids safe. Public health violations were not properly dealt with and there appears to be a serious breakdown in health inspection processes,” Batten said.
The Opposition critic for child care and child and family services also questioned how clear the communication to parents of children affected by the initial outbreak was, and whether that could have prevented onward transmission.
Batten wants to see an external, independent investigation of the outbreak itself and the systemic circumstances that led to it.
“We need folks who have no vested interest in the outcome of this investigation. So we need folks who are completely impartial, who are simply there with facts, who will follow the research and provide our best guidance to help our children,” the Calgary-Acadia MLA said.
If a full inquiry is done, it would follow in the footsteps of another E. coli outbreak that set national records.
The Walkerton, Ont., E. coli outbreak in May 2000 had a two-part report released in January 2002, describing the events and series of failures that led to the contamination of the water supply, infecting thousands and killing seven. The reports also recommended ways to improve water quality and public health in Ontario.
Associate justice Dennis R. O’Connor was appointed commissioner of the Walkerton Inquiry.
Saturday on Your Province, Your Premier, Smith suggested the investigation into the E. coli outbreak be folded into an ongoing review of the province’s COVID-19 response.
“We are in the process of a public health review,” the premier said on Corus Radio stations. “I’ve hired Preston Manning to, as you know, to look at all of the pieces of legislation related to the response that we had during the (COVID-19) pandemic. And the Public Health Act is right in his eyesight with a number of different recommendations. So this will have to be added to it.”
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Smith suggested one change could be changes to requirement for food handling certificates, bringing them in line with alcohol serving requirements. Currently, anyone in a licensed establishment who serves alcohol must take a course to certify them.
“We may have to do the same thing for food safety courses. As I understand it right now, there’s a requirement for at least one person in the kitchen to have food safety courses, but maybe everyone who works in food preparation needs to,” she said Saturday.
On Monday, Smith reiterated her commitment last week to get to the bottom of what happened in the Calgary daycares and explained how the former leader of the Reform Party would assist.
“I had asked Preston Manning to look at the full range of legal changes that might be necessary in looking at what the next pandemic response should be. And so the Public Health Act is one part of it,” Smith said Monday. “But there’s I think about seven or eight other pieces of legislation that he is looking at.”
Batten said Smith’s government should not be investigating itself and said it would be “a horrible idea” to have Manning take it over.
“Preston Manning has openly denied science and spread several damaging conspiracy theories concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. He has zero credibility to lead this public inquiry, or any public inquiry for that matter,” Batten told reporters.
“Let’s listen to science and reason.”
One parent of a child who was infected by the outbreak would rather see “consequences” than an inquiry.
“I really think that it’s more about looking at how did this occur, why did it occur and what can we put in place right now? And we have those answers. We have the answers of how this happened and why the guidelines in place have absolutely no consequences attached to them if they’re not followed,” Kate Maxwell said.
“There has to be some kind of consequence to that. So I’d like to see consequences where people are no longer allowed to operate.”
Maxwell wonders what sort of precedent has been set by allowing daycares to reopen in light of an E. coli outbreak.
“(This precedent) says you can do this to kids. It doesn’t matter. You can continue to operate as normal,” she said.
AHS confirmed the kitchen remains closed, as of Monday.
Last week, Smith announced parents affected by the outbreak could receive $2,000 per child in “compassionate compensation” and that the daycare operators would give refunds for the days children were unable to return due to the E. coli outbreak.
On Monday, Smith clarified the payment is meant to help address the trauma, disruption and financial hardships faced by the parents of kids that attended the 11 daycares that were originally closed on Sept. 4, when the outbreak was declared.
“At the moment, we haven’t extended it to the partial closures (at)the other facilities,” Smith said on Monday. “We are hopeful that those will be reopened very quickly. And so I understand the Health minister will have more to say on that on Wednesday.”
Fueling Brains Academy, the company that owns the central kitchen and saw five daycares closed, said while their daycares are no longer going to be served by that kitchen, they are working with the families and province on tuition and refunds.
“Parents will receive credits for the time their children missed class due to closures or time spent recovering,” a statement from Fueling Brains said. “Parents who withdraw their children from our campuses will have their tuition refunded for the time they did not receive services and the 30-day cancellation policy waived.”
One personal injury lawyer Global News spoke with last week said parents would be well-advised to read through all of the fine print, in case receiving those provincial funds would need them to sign away any rights to other compensation, like via a proposed class action lawsuit.
The health ministry said the provincial government is not party to that proposed class action.
“Acceptance of this payment will not preclude the parties’ ability to take legal action,” a statement reads.
The lack of national standards around child care is a result of the free market approach taken to it, one child care policy researcher told Global News.
“We’re in this situation across the country because we’ve never developed child care as a system and we’ve never set out to develop quality child care. So it’s all been left to chance or to entrepreneurs or to parent groups,” Martha Friendly, executive director of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit, said.
And after the federal government signed agreements to provide funds to drastically reduce childcare costs for families, the country is in a de facto position of trying to develop a child care system.
“We are in a transitional phase, hopefully, where presumably the provinces — and some of them are — have strategies for how they’re going to develop public and non-profit child care, which is what is preferred in the new program,” Friendly said.
She said the standards around food safety need to be fundamental for child care, noting nutritional value is also important.
The child care researcher said an inquiry into the Calgary daycare outbreak is an opportunity to examine how food handling and child care policies interact.
“It should not only spark a review of food handling and child care — which I think is iffy because of the way some of the child care policy works around food — it should also spark a review of how food is handled.”
–with files from The Canadian Press
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