COVID-19 in Brooks: How widespread testing, cultural support helped an Alberta city avert disaster

This is part 2 of a special series examining the COVID-19 in Brooks, AB.  You can find Part 1, “COVID-19 in Brooks: How a small Alberta city faced one of Canada’s most virulent outbreaks,” here.

When Remilyn Biay took leave from her job at the JBS beef-processing plant near Brooks, Alta. in mid-April, it had nothing to do with her health.

“My baby’s daycare, they decided to close temporarily because most of the parents are working at JBS,” the single mother said.

Biay had been spending her time at home, so she was shocked to learn almost two weeks later that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have no idea where or when I got positive.”

The novel coronavirus began spreading through the small Alberta city in mid-April, where health officials identified outbreaks in multiple locations, including the JBS plant.

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With dozens of new cases coming to light each day, Mayor Barry Morishita began to push for more testing.

READ MORE: COVID-19 in Brooks: How a small Alberta city faced one of Canada’s most virulent outbreaks

“Because there’s no cure, no treatment, there’s no vaccine, clearly, so testing is really the only way to understand what’s happening in your community,” Morishita said.

“So we pressed really heard for the first asymptomatic test site in Alberta.”

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Beginning on April 27th, a testing event was held for anyone in Brooks, whether they had symptoms or not.  Over three days, 3,653 people were tested and 10 per cent were determined to be positive.

“That kind of strikes you, that 10 per cent of your asymptomatic population is testing positive,” said Morishita.

“It allowed everyone to understand that, oh, wait, there’s a bigger problem here.”

How the virus spread so quickly in Brooks, Alberta

How the virus spread so quickly in Brooks, Alberta

Biay was one of those aymptomatic cases to test positive.

Dr. Viven Suttorp, Alberta Health Services Medical Officer of Health for the province’s south zone, says most of those tested at the event were not truly asymptomatic.  Many, she says, were experiencing mild symptoms or symptoms not typical of COVID-19.

Some also went on to develop symptoms later on, but Biay says she never felt so much as a headache.

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“I was symptom-free.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 asymptomatic tests: 48 positive cases in Calgarians with no known contact with virus

The population of Brooks is diverse, with people coming from all over the world to work in the community, many of them with multiple jobs.  There are also many who live in multi-generational homes that can be crowded.

Hinshaw says COVID-19 numbers are encouraging in Calgary and Brooks

Hinshaw says COVID-19 numbers are encouraging in Calgary and Brooks

Mohammed Idriss, case manager with Brook & County Immigration Services, says his organization decided early on to engage with as many people as possible.

“We actually decided to call and outreach to everyone in our database and that’s about 1200 to 1300 clients,” Idriss said.

Educational material was translated into 13 languages, while those who were unable to isolate at home were put up in hotel rooms.

By the first week of May , the curve in Brooks started to level and people began to recover.  A little more than two weeks after the outbreak’s peak, fewer than 100 active cases remained.

READ MORE: JBS beef plant in Alberta returning to 2 shifts per day after COVID-19 outbreak

On May 12, a second three-day testing event was opened to the community.  This time, 1,663 residents came out for testing and fewer than one per cent of them were positive.

“I do think this is a success story,” Dr. Suttorp said.

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“I always say that everybody owns public health and so it’s a success on behalf of everybody.”

Still, the outbreak has had tragic consquences as well. Seven people in the community have died.

“I unfortunately know a couple of families that lost members in the assisted living facility,” said Morishita.

“Some of them are very understanding of what was done but then others think that maybe we could have been in front of this a little bit more. But you know, it’s invisible, it’s new and I think our support groups here did the best they could.”

COVID-19: Testing centre in Brooks open to everyone

COVID-19: Testing centre in Brooks open to everyone

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