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Alberta eyes changes to support sick workers as coronavirus cases reach 19


EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government is looking to change workplace rules for employees who may need time off to isolate themselves during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Kenney says the province is eyeing regulatory changes so workers would no longer need a doctor's note to be able to stay at home after showing symptoms.

"We don't want people who might be sick going into medical clinics and seeing their doctors," Kenney said in Calgary on Wednesday before flying to Ottawa for a first ministers meeting.

"We're looking at a whole suite of measures in terms of regulatory changes to better support folks who may need to stay home."

One question is whether there needs to be legal clarification to prevent employers from laying off people who are isolating themselves at home, Kenney said.

But he added: "I trust Alberta employers. They're not going to penalize people for doing what's responsible in terms of their public health."

Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said he appreciates steps the province is taking but more needs to be done.

He said the government can't just guarantee those who return from self-isolation will still have their jobs. It must also make sure they get paid during that time at home.

"Fourteen days is a long time to go without income, especially for people who are on low income and living paycheque to paycheque and, frankly, that is a lot of Albertans," McGowan said in Edmonton.

Also Wednesday, chief medical health officer Deena Hinshaw announced five new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Alberta, bringing the total to 19.

Hinshaw said the cases include an Edmonton man in his 30s, who underwent recent unrelated treatment at the city's Misericordia Hospital before testing positive for the virus on Monday.

Hinshaw said the man is self-isolating and anyone who might have come into contact with him is being notified.

"There is no risk to patients or staff at the hospital at this time," Hinshaw said in a news conference. "There is no need for anyone else who may have attended the Misericordia or other hospital sites to be concerned or take additional action."

The other four cases involve a man and two women from the Calgary area and a woman in central Alberta.

Hinshaw said the risk of contracting the virus remains low, but anyone returning from Italy in the last two weeks should self-isolate.

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It is also becoming harder for doctors to order protective supplies like masks, Hinshaw added, and priority for the items will be given to family doctors doing testing for COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is rolling out a $1-billion package to help the country's health-care system and economy cope with the outbreak, which has resulted in more than 100 cases nationwide and has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Kenney said he appreciates any additional money. He had not seen any details of the federal plan, but said such funding normally is on a per capita basis, meaning about $60 million for Alberta.

"Our initial estimate of (Alberta's) prospective costs to the health system of the coronavirus is in the range of $80 million, so it doesn't cover that," said Kenney.

"If the virus spreads at a level beyond what we're currently estimating, the costs will be significantly higher."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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