Alberta reports 13 more COVID-19 deaths and 582 new cases

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Alberta reported 13 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and 582 new cases of the illness.

There are 6,588 active cases in the province, with 517 patients being treated in hospitals for the illness, including 93 in ICU beds.

The province has now confirmed a total of 68 cases of people infected with variants of the coronavirus that were first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

"We are actively reviewing the literature and experience around the globe to assess if additional measures are needed in school and other settings in the weeks ahead," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday at a news conference.

"Evidence is still emerging, but we are watching closely. If we need to make changes, we will do so."

Laboratories conducted more than 11,500 tests over the past 24 hours, and the positivity rate was about 3.6 per cent.

Hinshaw said current evidence from around the world indicates that vaccines are safe and the benefit of being protected from COVID-19 outweighs the very rare risk of a minor adverse event.

"When it's your turn to receive the vaccine, I ask that you make the choice to be immunized," she said. "Whether you're doing it to protect yourself, your family, or perhaps those you don't even know, your immunization will save lives."

More research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of the vaccines on the virus variants, Hinshaw said.

"It's important to remember that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are only a few months old, just like the variants. There is much we do not yet know, though researchers around the world are investigating," she said.

"However, even against the variants, these vaccines still appear to be extremely effective at preventing severe cases, hospitalizations and deaths."

Since new restrictions were imposed in early December, Alberta's case numbers have continued to drop. But the arrival of more contagious variants of the virus, bottlenecks in the vaccine supply and lagging declines in hospitalization rates have kept health officials on edge.

The pandemic has claimed the lives of 1,684 Albertans since it began last March.

On Wednesday, Hinshaw commended Albertans for their efforts to bend the curve but has urged patience, suggesting the virus and its more contagious variants could easily push the health-care system back into a crisis.

A measured approach should limit the need to jump back and forth between easing and tightening restrictions, she 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."