Though case numbers are declining, Alberta is taking a cautious approach to reopening because hospitals are still under strain dealing with 10 times the COVID-19 patients they saw during last spring's first wave of the pandemic, says the province's top public health doctor.
There are currently 539 patients being treated for the illness in hospitals, including 94 in ICU beds. That's a decline of almost 400 since the peak of 938 on Dec. 30.
"This a very encouraging trend, and pressure is easing on the health system that we all rely on," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday at a news conference.
"At the same time, our numbers remain far higher than they were in the spring."
When Alberta's spring relaunch began on May 14, there were 57 people in hospital, one-tenth of the current total, Hinshaw said.
The 6,599 active cases reported on Wednesday is less than one-third of the peak of 21,231 seen on Dec. 13, but it's still drastically higher than what Alberta was facing in May, she said.
"When we relaunched in the spring, there were less than 1,000 active cases in the community," she said, "meaning that there are almost seven times the active cases today than there were at that time."
Alberta reported 259 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the lowest daily total in almost four months.
The current count of active cases is the lowest total since Nov. 1, when there were 5,980. Another 11 deaths were reported on Wednesday.
Hinshaw said she is well aware that many people have strong feelings about how restrictions are being eased, with some saying the province is moving too slowly, while others think it is moving too fast.
"Both of these perspectives are understandable," she said. "And as I have often said, there is no one right way to navigate this pandemic."
On Monday, restaurants and gyms will see some measures loosened, allowing for a partial reopening of those businesses.
She said the province has made "remarkable progress" over these last two months in bending the curve, progress that has required sacrifices from many business owners and members of the public.
But because cases and hospitalizations are much higher than in the spring, and given the threat posed by new variants of the virus, numbers could readily spike again, Hinshaw said.
"That is why we are not relaxing measures for a large number of sectors all at once, like we did in the spring," she said.
"It's important that we take a slow, phased approach to ensure we aren't doing too much too fast, especially as we learn more about the new variants of COVID-19 and work to prevent their spread in Alberta.
A careful, measured approach should limit the need to jump back and forth between easing and tightening of restrictions, she said, which would be difficult for everyone.
Of the most recent deaths reported, one happened on Nov. 9, one on Dec. 17, one on Jan. 2, one on Jan. 3, five on Feb. 1, and two on Feb. 2.
Cases numbers have declined over the past few weeks.
On Oct. 17, the province confirmed 224 new cases. Soon after, the numbers began to climb rapidly as the second wave swept through the province.
In the first two weeks of December, the province routinely reported more than 1,600 new cases each day.
The regional breakdown of active cases of Wednesday was:
Calgary zone: 2,717.
Edmonton zone: 2,147.
North zone: 795.
Central zone: 631.
South zone: 290.