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Lac La Biche region's medical chief of staff says public has 'heads in the sand' as virus spreads

Lac La Biche County's top medical doctor is urging the community to take the coronavirus more seriously.

While there have yet to be any local confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than 378,000 people around the world have contracted the disease, resulting in 16,505 deaths, and Dr. Richard Birkill said local cases of the respiratory virus are inevitable.

"It's coming, and in the next two weeks it will be much, much worse," warned the Lac La Biche region's medical chief of staff, who is surprised by the lack of community buy-in to the situation. "It's going to happen and it's going to happen very quickly."

Seeing the amount of social interactions that are continuing, Birkill fears the result will be overwhelming for an already strained health system, forcing life-and-death decisions to be made.

In Italy, he said, the high mortality rate from the virus — estimated at more than nine per cent — is due to the crushing pressure of so many patients on that country's healthcare system. For local residents to think that kind of situation can't happen in their small, rural communities, the results could be fatal.

"I think people are really sticking their heads in the sand," Birkill said on Friday, adding that his own family has stocked up on supplies for an extended period and have closed their homes to all visitors.

It's a mindset that all community members need to take.

While the respiratory virus can be fatal for some, the largest fear, said Birkill, is the sheer volume of cases that could flood the system.

"The only way to slow this virus down is for people to avoid other people," he warned. "Wash your hands and stay at home."

Birkill said the coronavirus is the first global virus with such a fast rate of spread in 100 years. The Spanish Flu that swept the globe between 1918 and 1920 killed a reported 7 million people — 55,000 in Canada — and needs to serve as a reminder, he says.

"The last time anything like this happened was a hundred years ago — nobody has seen anything like this before."

With better healthcare, communications and technology, the death rate of COVID-19 is expected to be substantially less but Birkill says it will only work if the public takes the proper precautions. Currently, he said, medical professionals across the province are in constant contact with Alberta Health and Health Canada officials. It doesn't get much more serious than this, he said.

"We are in major disaster planning mode," he warned.