(Government of Alberta - image credit)
Alberta reported 277 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and seven more deaths from the illness.
Across the province, 370 patients are being treated in hospitals for the disease, including 60 in ICU beds.
Nine days after the province eased some restrictions, public health officials are closely watching "leading indicators" as they try to determine if or when further restrictions can be lifted, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday at a news conference.
The indicators include the positivity rate, new case counts and the R-value, and Hinshaw said she is watching for trends rather than for specific benchmarks.
"We're looking both at that hospital metric, which is an absolute number, and we're also looking at those three leading indicators to determine, are they stable, are they declining — which are positive signs — or have they started to increase in a sustained way.
"In which case, we would need to consider whether we need to pause or move forward or, even in a worse case scenario, move backwards."
COVID-19 numbers continue to decrease
Alberta Health data shows that new daily cases peaked in the province on Dec. 4 with 1,874.
By Feb. 16, the latest update available, new daily cases had dropped to 277. The last time that number was so small was on Oct. 17.
Hospitalizations in the province peaked on Dec. 30, when 940 patients were being treated for the illness, including 143 in ICU beds.
On Feb. 16, there were 370 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 60 in ICU.
The R-value from Feb. 8 to Feb. 14 was:
Alberta provincewide: 0.85 (confidence interval) (0.82-0.89)
Edmonton Zone: 0.78 (confidence interval) (0.71-0.85)
Calgary Zone: 0.82 (confidence interval) (0.76-0.88)
Rest of Alberta: 0.94 (confidence interval) (0.88-1.01)
The R-value is essentially the number of people infected by each infected person. It's also known as the reproduction number or R-number.
Four more variant cases reported
Laboratories processed 7,476 tests over the past 24 hours, with a positivity rate of about 3.9 per cent.
Variant cases continue to rise in the province, with another four reported on Feb. 16.
The first case of B.1.1.7, first detected in the United Kingdom, was confirmed in Alberta in December. As of Wednesday, a total of 218 cases linked to that variant had been confirmed in the province.
Another variant called B.1351, originally identified in South Africa, was first reported in Alberta on Jan. 8. As of Wednesday, a total of seven cases linked to that variant had been confirmed in the province.
Since fall, Alberta Health Services has increased its capacity to do contact tracing, Hinshaw said.
Until December, less than one per cent of confirmed cases didn't answer the phone or return calls from contact tracers.
But since then the province has seen a "concerning" rise in such incidents, Hinshaw said, and in January tracers had problems contacting people in about two per cent of positive cases.
Contact tracing essential in keeping cases down
So far in February, tracers have encountered that problem in about 1.3 per cent of cases.
"Contact tracing remains essential to our ability to keep Albertans healthy and to keep driving our cases downward," she said. "To be successful in containing COVID spread, contact tracing relies on a partnership with Albertans who test positive or who have been exposed to COVID-19.
"Unfortunately recently, we have seen a small but significant increase in the number of people who aren't participating with the contact tracing process. It may be tempting to think that not providing information will make COVID go away. Unfortunately, the opposite is true."
The province has now administered about 152,000 doses of vaccine, and more than 56,500 people have been fully immunized with two doses.
A total of 1,798 people in Alberta have died from the illness since last March.