CALGARY — The Alberta government will immediately give families a one-time payment of $2,000 for each child affected by an E. coli outbreak related to several Calgary daycares, Premier Danielle Smith said Friday.
"Families are having a tough time with a lot of disruptions. Some have spent days and nights watching their children in pain in the hospital or sick at home, and we understand that this has put families under a lot of stress," said Smith, who got choked up at a news conference as she described the anguish and broken trust affected families must be feeling.
"We want to help ease as much of that stress as we can. And that includes the financial strain this has caused due to parents being away from work and caring for their kids."
Investigators were still looking for the source of the outbreak that has infected hundreds and left dozens of children severely ill since it was declared on Sept. 4. Health officials have said it almost certainly came from a central kitchen used by the daycares.
Smith said the province is also reviewing all shared kitchens in the province and would look into new regulations for food safety if they are required.
The announcements came a day after parents with children in the daycares sent an open letter asking Smith to do more to deal with the situation.
"None of us suspected our children were at risk of ingesting E. coli while in childcare," said the letter, which had about 1,000 e-signatures on Friday. "We trusted not only our daycare facility but that the government itself had regulations in place that were keeping them safe.
"We would like to know why we have not heard from you."
Smith said she understands the parents' frustration but that she didn't want to interfere in the medical care of the children or the public health investigation into the source of the outbreak.
"It's a fair criticism. I've heard it and I'll accept it for next time," she said.
"I've also watched a lot of instances where politicians show up at disaster scenes and people are yelling at them saying we don't want you here, we want the emergency workers focused on helping us."
Smith said she now knows people expected more of a response from the provincial government, but the children were getting care, the public health investigation was ongoing and the parents were informed quickly.
"This is part of the reason why they managed to contain the outbreak even though there could have been potentially 1,300 kids and their siblings and family members all impacted by this."
Alberta Children and Family Services confirmed the one-time payments could cost about $2.5 million.
Faisal Alimohd, co-founder of Fueling Brains, said in a statement on social media that it has been a challenging week for everyone.
"As a father whose children attended Fueling Brains Academy, I understand that this week is a parent's worst nightmare," he wrote on X, previously known as Twitter. "Our team at Fueling Brains is devastated by recent events."
Alimohd said the company is working to determine what happened and share information. The daycares are also extending credits, providing refunds and waiving terminations for affected families, he said.
"While we understand that nothing can erase the stress and pain of the last few weeks, we are committed to making things right," he added.
Alberta's chief medical officer of health said the situation in hospitals remains serious.
"However, we are somewhat heartened by the fact that it appears that the number of patients in hospital has stabilized over the last couple of days," said Dr. Mark Joffe.
There have been 337 lab-confirmed cases of the bacterial infection related to the 10-day old outbreak.
Twelve children were still in hospital, 10 of whom have hemolytic uremic syndrome — a complication affecting the blood and kidneys. Six of those children were receiving dialysis.
Joffe said there have been 26 secondary transmission cases, all within households linked to the outbreak.
The daycares have all been allowed to reopen, but Joffe said the central kitchen is closed indefinitely. A public health inspection in response to the outbreak showed the kitchen lacked proper sanitization methods, had a pest infestation and food was transported without temperature control.
Alberta Health Services said later Friday that it had closed another daycare, Calgary JCC Child Care, after a child tested positive for Shiga-toxin producing E. coli.
"The child was not in attendance at any of the daycares involved in the outbreak to date," said an emailed statement from spokesman Kerry Williamson.
"AHS is in contact with the family to further investigate to determine if this is linked to the Fueling Brains outbreak. Further review will look to confirm if there is a connection."
Officials, including Joffe, said parents should watch their children for any symptoms, keep them at home when sick and seek medical care if required.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 15, 2023.
Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press