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Alberta's chief medical health officer in self-isolation, gets coronavirus test

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EDMONTON — A doctor who has become the face of Alberta's medical response to the novel coronavirus outbreak is in self-isolation.

"I am currently experiencing mild symptoms consistent with the common cold, likely due to the long hours that I, and many in our health-care system, have been working in recent weeks," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical health officer, said on Twitter on Monday.

"My symptoms are not consistent with COVID-19; however, in line with the advice I am providing to all Albertans, I am self-isolating and working from home until my test results are confirmed."

Hinshaw was set to deliver the latest provincial update later Monday via video-conferencing.

Hinshaw has been delivering daily updates on COVID-19 cases and precautionary measures since the first case was reported in Alberta on March 5.

She has been praised for her straightforward demeanour and for relaying as much information as possible, while urging Albertans to remain calm and practise basic hygiene such as hand-washing.

Alberta has 56 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and is undertaking broad isolation measures to halt the spread.

There are to be no large gatherings of 250 or more. Classes in schools and post-secondary institutions have been suspended and daycares have been closed.

Albertans are asked not to travel outside Canada and to self-isolate for 14 days if returning from out-of-country travel.

Also Monday, the legislature resumed sitting after a scheduled week-long break. Public tours and events have been cancelled and public access to the building has been curtailed.

Members on both sides of the house spoke before empty public galleries and sipped from paper cups instead of their usual water glasses.

The house was expected to facilitate a promise from Premier Jason Kenney to add $500 million to the health budget to fight the coronavirus.

Debate raged during question period over an announcement by government house leader Jason Nixon that he would accelerate and limit debate to get the United Conservative government's 2020-21 budget passed by Tuesday night. 

Nixon said outside the house Monday that it's critical to ensure funding is in place for the fiscal year that begins April 1, given the legislature may be shut down at any time due over self-isolation concerns.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the government has short-term measures it can use to keep spending going.

Notley accused Kenney of using undemocratic methods to ram through a budget that relies on unreachable revenue forecasts and harms Albertans with changes that will affect everything from front-line health care to classrooms.

"It's not true that you need to pass this broken budget to authorize spending," said Notley. "What is true is that passing this budget now will allow this government to avoid oversight, transparency and accountability for the next year."

Kenney replied that the health budget is already the highest ever at $20.6 billion, even before the extra $500 million.

The "Opposition, in the midst of a time of enormous public anxiety, is seeking to frighten people on the basis of gross misinformation," he said.

Notley said when population and inflation are considered, the $500 million will barely cover the effective net loss of $462 million since 2019.

In other developments, Kenney updated his announcement made last week that Alberta will be offering paid, job-protected leave for those who have to self-isolate for two weeks or must care for people who have contracted COVID-19.

Kenney told the house his government hopes the federal government will fund the paid leave by expanding its employment income program.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press