Alberta has confirmed its first case of COVID-19 linked to the highly contagious B1617 variant fuelling a massive surge of cases in India.
The province reported 1,857 new cases on Thursday and confirmed another 1,326 infections linked to variants of concern.
The B1617 variant, first identified in India, has also been found in California and is "a key driver" in rapidly spreading cases that are now sweeping through India, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday at a news conference.
"This variant was in a returning inter-provincial traveller to Alberta, and no additional cases of this variant have been detected to date," Hinshaw said.
"As with all new variants, research is underway to understand what may be different about the B1617 variant, how it spreads, and if it creates more severe illness. So far we are calling this a variant of interest as we work with colleagues across the country, to monitor the latest findings on this variant as evidence emerges from around the world."
Unknown if new variant more infectious, Hinshaw says
It's not yet known whether the B1617 variant is more infectious than other variants of concern already in the province, Hinshaw said.
"And what's important as we hear about new variants of interest or new variants of concern is that the precautions that we have been working toward, building habits toward, for more than a year now, if we do those things consistently every single day we can create that wall of protection that protects our families, ourselves and our communities.
"So whether it's B1617, B117, P1, any of the other alphabet-soup variants of interest, the really important thing is consistent approaches to public health measures."
Alberta now has 19,182 active cases. Variants now make up about 60 per cent of the province's active cases.
Across the province, hospitals were treating 518 COVID-19 patients, including 116 in ICU beds.
"It's important to remember that hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, and these individuals in hospital were likely first infected around two to three weeks ago," Hinshaw said.
"Given how high our leading indicators — growth rate, new cases and positivity rate — have been, we can expect to see this number grow in the coming days. We must bend this curve down to prevent these severe outcomes and the subsequent outcome on our health-care system."
During the second wave, hospitalizations peaked on Dec. 30, 2020, with 943 COVID-19 patients in acute care, including 155 in ICU.
Unknown if vaccines effective against B1617
Hinshaw said it's too soon to know whether approved vaccines protect against the B1617 strain of the coronavirus.
"The place that has reported most of this particular kind of variant is in India, and so we don't yet have that information, which is why again this is deemed a variant of interest," she said.
"At this point in time, while we are looking very closely at the evidence, there hasn't yet been an assessment of that from the Canadian perspective, when we look at the evidence, that this particular variant is shown to have a decreased response by the vaccine.
Slowing the spread of all strains of the virus can be most effectively done by following public health measures and taking actions people have long been familiar with, she said, including physical distancing, wearing masks and staying home if sick.
"As cases continue to climb in the province, it's critical that anyone who is eligible get vaccinated as soon as possible," Hinshaw said. "This protects the individuals who are vaccinated and those around them. It also helps limit community transmission of COVID-19, which will relieve the building pressure on our health-care system.
"I urge anyone who is eligible who hasn't yet booked their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to book their appointment today."
Another six deaths were added to the toll on Thursday, bringing the total to 2,054.