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‘Let’s finish strong’: Mayor, CEMA Chief look back on one year anniversary of Calgary’s first COVID case

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said no one wants to be that soldier who gets injured in the last week of the war.

That’s the metaphor he used to describe the next three to six months of Calgary’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

The mayor and Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) Chief Sue Henry looked back at the city’s COVID-19 response on the one year anniversary of Calgary’s first confirmed case.

“While there is more than light at the end of the tunnel, while the tunnel is flooding with springtime sunshine, we must remain disciplined,” the mayor said.

REWIND: Here’s what the first state of local emergency sounded like roughly one year ago.

The mayor said the past year has been bittersweet; more than 500 Calgarians have died due to COVID-19, he said. Thousands more have had their lives impacted by the virus.

“At the same time, that’s levened by the fact that I’m just so proud of the response of Calgarians,” he said.

“By and large, they’ve been thoughtful, they’ve been disciplined, they’ve worked hard to keep one another safe.”

Emergency response evolution

To this point, Calgary’s major disasters have been relatively short-lived, Chief Henry said. There wasn’t really a textbook to deal with a lengthy pandemic.

“We’re really had to adjust our expectations and adjust our structure to be able to manage that we’re in this for the long haul,” she said.

Henry took over the helm of CEMA mid-pandemic, after Tom Sampson announced his retirement.

One of the biggest changes to come about through the city’s pandemic response is the inclusion of a wide variety of experts in the decision making.

“If I had to distill it down to one right now, it’s to open the door to those experts. The University of Calgary in particular has a great advisory group, let those experts into your decision making process and really learn from what they have to offer,” Chief Henry said.

“They are the people that are forefront in their fields.”

In particular, she pointed out one behaviour psychologist that helped them in how to talk to Calgarians, depending on their point in the pandemic response.

The establishment of different relationships is another area exposed by COVID-19. Chief Henry said that Alberta Health Services wasn’t a CEMA member they typically worked with in the past. It forced them to create a different partnership structure to ensure readiness on all fronts.

20/20 hindsight

While Chief Henry said the inclusion of experts would be one of the changes they’ll write into the textbook on pandemic planning, Mayor Nenshi said he would have pushed harder on school openings.

In hindsight, given the evidence that eventually emerged, Mayor Nenshi said high schools should have been treated different than elementary schools. They realized quickly that disease transmission in the two scholastic levels was very different.

He said in retrospect, high schools probably should have been closed for longer (opened later).  

“Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve gotten a lot of evidence that, had we had that evidence earlier, we would have done things differently,” the mayor said.

“And there even there are innumerable examples of that.

“These are things that will stay in the textbook as we move forward.”

Both the mayor and Chief Henry said enforcement of public health orders was always a delicate balance. Mayor Nenshi said they always wanted an education-before-enforcement approach.

There was a tipping point, however, when people knew the rules and deliberately broke them.

“I still believe that the time for education on this stuff is long past,” the mayor said.

“And when people are flagrantly putting other people at risk, when they are violating not only the rules for themselves, but dangerous for other people… wandering through Chinook Centre unmasked, harassing other shoppers and the store owners and the teenage kids who work in the store, yeah, you should get the biggest ticket we’ve got.”

Since Aug. 1, 2020, 258 tickets for failing to wear a face covering have been issued. Thirty-six have come since Feb. 25, 2021.  There have been 197 tickets for violating the public health orders.  

The next six months

Chief Henry said the next six months will be focused on vaccinations. The city is poised to assist in the mass delivery of the vaccines, she said.

Then, the focus shifts to the lingering fallout of Calgarians’ mental health. Chief Henry expects it to be a major challenge.

“It’s one of the only events that we’ve had in Calgary where truly every single Calgarian is touched in some way by this. I think we’re still working to understand what that means,” she said.

Isolation, changed habits and behaviours and how to navigate through it will be the next test.

For the city, Mayor Nenshi said a recent comment from Coun. Druh Farrell about the city becoming more nimble as the pandemic wore on was a fair one.

Whether it’s transit response, business relief response, or quality of life measures like patios and adaptive pathways, it’s shown the city can move quickly. Though, he said the city’s moved nimbly in the past.

“What happened here is there just wasn’t any time to mess around,” Mayor Nenshi said.

He thinks the city can continue with a similar approach as it emerges from the pandemic.

“I think what we’ve learned is that things that we thought that were very risky, could be done without a bunch of downside, because we can switch things back if we need to,” he said.

“And I hope that that is a skill or a practice that will continue with the city.”

Stay disciplined, mayor says

The mayor said the time when you can hug your mom again is coming soon. The key is continued vigilance, he said.

Even with a vaccination.

“I want to remind people, very practically, you don’t go to the vaccination clinic and then as you’re leaving rip off, your mask and start jumping and dancing down the street,” he said.

He said over the next three to six months, the restrictions should ease up. Calgarians will get back to their pre-COVID lives.  He too is wary of the lingering mental health challenge ahead; the economic one, too.

That light, however, is at the end of the tunnel. It’s getting brighter.

“Ultimately, I think people can feel very hopeful,” he said.

“I just remind everyone, discipline is the best vaccine. Stay disciplined as we move forward and the end is in sight. So, let’s finish strong.”