Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced on Thursday, Jan. 21, that there would be no change in the current public health restrictions at this time. Dr. Hinshaw had reported that there were 726 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 119 in intensive care. After completing 14,000 tests, Alberta's positivity rate was 4.8% at that time.
After praising Albertans for their sacrifices and community spirit in bringing down the number of positive cases, hospitalizations, and positivity rate in the province, Dr. Hinshaw reminded them that they were not in the clear yet. While there had been significant progress in reducing the province's number of positive cases and hospitalizations, Alberta had just as many current hospitalizations for COVID-19 as there had been when the most restrictive public measures were put in place on Dec. 8, 2020. Alberta had the second-highest number of active cases in the country as of Jan. 21, ahead of Ontario and Quebec. A decision had not been made as to how long the public health restrictions would stay in place.
Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro held a joint press conference with Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw on Jan. 25. Minister Shandro began by describing two new variants of COVID-19 that have now been found in Alberta. One variant was first identified in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), and the other was first identified in South Africa (501Y-V2). Of particular concern, the new variants appear to be between 30 and 50% more infectious than the current dominant strain of COVID-19. Fortunately, evidence does not seem to indicate that they cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death. Evidence also suggests that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will still be effective with the new variants.
So far, 20 cases of the UK variant have been discovered in Alberta and 5 cases of the South African variant. Almost all of the new variant cases are directly linked to international travel, but one case of the UK variant doesn't appear to be travel-related. This may indicate that the variant has entered the community. Minister Shandro presented projections of the impact that these variants could have on Alberta's population. In one scenario starting with 250 active cases and assuming that there were no health measures in place, in six weeks there would be a projected 2,217 new cases diagnosed every day with the current strain of COVID-19 compared to an astounding 10,217 new cases diagnosed every day with the UK variant. A second scenario began with similar assumptions to the previous scenario; after eight weeks, 1073 hospitalizations were projected with the current strain of COVID-19 compared to 3611 hospitalizations with the UK variant. The province is increasing its capacity to complete genetic testing to identify new cases of the new variants.
Minister Shandro announced some changes to the border pilot program. The Border Testing Pilot Program allowed eligible international travellers at select airport and border crossings to reduce the amount of time they had to quarantine on arrival if they presented proof of a negative COVID-19 test result. Previously, participants could leave isolation after their first negative test upon arriving at the airport, provided that they sought a second test around six or seven days later. Now participants will have to remain in quarantine until their second negative test comes back. They cannot return to childcare, out of school care, schools, post-secondary institutions, or workplaces outside of their homes for a period of 14 days. Any current program participants must immediately return to quarantine if they have not received a second negative test result. Travellers returning from the UK or South Africa are no longer eligible to participate in this program. All of the COVID-19 tests conducted as a part of this program will be tested for the UK and South African variants.
The current public health restrictions will continue to remain in place.
Dr. Hinshaw reported 362 new cases that day and 25 more deaths. So far, there have been 1,574 deaths related to COVID-19 in Alberta since last March. Alberta's COVID-19 positivity rate is 5%. Six hundred thirty-seven people were hospitalized due to the virus on Jan. 25, with 113 in intensive care.
Almost 99,500 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Alberta as of Jan. 24, including more than 9,870 people fully immunized with both of the required doses.
Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette