With hospitalizations on the rise, Alberta will not move to Step 3 of its reopening plan, the province's health minister announced on Monday.
Cabinet's COVID-19 committee met Monday and decided not to shift to the next step in a four-part plan to reopen the province, Tyler Shandro said at a news conference.
"When we announced the plan in January, we were clear," Shandro said. "Moving to Step 3 can be considered only when hospitalizations for COVID patients are under 300 and declining. Hospitalizations must be on a clear downward trajectory if we are to enter any new step, just like they were when we entered Step 1 and Step 2 earlier this year.
"Today, while hospitalizations are indeed below 300, they've risen in recent days. The decline that we saw in January and early February has stopped. Alberta now sits at 280 COVID hospitalizations, which is a rise of 16 from a week ago."
That number is a "warning sign" the province has to take seriously, Shandro said.
Based on transmission rates, the province expects to have 300 people in hospital within a week.
"And that's why we decided not to move to Step 3 of our path forward plan today," Shandro said.
"There will be no easing of any restrictions at this time. This is the safe move; it's the smart move to make for our province right now, and it's absolutely necessary to help us avoid a third wave that would take more lives and once again put more pressure on the hospital system."
Cases, positivity rate, variants rising
The province reported 456 new cases on Monday and five more deaths.
The Edmonton health zone has now lost 1,001 people since the pandemic began in March 2020. The Calgary zone recorded its 600th death on Monday.
Monday's update reported 6,176 active cases. The regional breakdown of those active cases was:
Calgary zone: 2,598
Edmonton zone: 1,407
North zone: 789
South zone: 780
Central zone: 585
Both active and daily cases are increasing, Shandro said, as is the positivity rate in all five of the health zones.
The province reported 110 new cases on Monday of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus first reported last year in the United Kingdom. Alberta has now confirmed 1,691 cases of that variant.
Variants now account for 16 per cent of Alberta's active cases, Shandro said, up from 10 per cent a couple of weeks ago.
"We saw in November, as well as in December, what can happen if things get out of control, and just how quickly that can happen," he said.
Hospitalizations likely to surpass 300
Though some people will be disappointed by the committee decision, Shandro said the delay was essential to avoid putting further pressures on the health-care system.
"Most of all, I know that Albertans are tired of having to worry about this virus and the risk to their families and to their loved ones, and wondering when life will get back to normal," he said.
"But the reality is that given recent case numbers, and the number of people in hospital due to COVID is likely to go back over the 300 threshold in the next week, it would be irresponsible and unfair to Albertans to ease measures now only to reinstate them a few days later.
"The path forward is about taking our time to make good decisions based on the evidence. And until today we had seen seven straight days of growth in the number of people in hospitals, and that hasn't happened since we had 40 days of increases that began Oct. 30."
WATCH | Health minister discusses decision to delay move to Step 3:
Vaccinations are the path out of the pandemic, but they aren't coming fast enough or in large-enough amounts, Shandro said.
Almost half of the COVID-19 patients currently in hospital, and almost 90 per cent of those who are in an ICU, are 65 and younger.
'Now is not the time'
Shandro was joined at the news conference by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health.
"This has been a long pandemic and I know that many people will have mixed reactions to the decision to delay Step 3," Hinshaw said.
"I have put a great deal of thought into the message that I want to give Albertans today. It is important that every one of us understands the powers that our actions have, and how crucial it is that we all make choices that protect our communities over the coming weeks.
"I said on Thursday that it might be possible to consider appealing to Albertans who are currently not following public health measures by offering them a lower-risk way of gathering.
"Unfortunately, as we have seen, cases, variants and hospitalizations continue to rise in recent days, we cannot take the risk of easing any measures at this point. Now is not the time to abandon tried and true practices that have protected our communities and our health-care system over the past year. COVID-19 is still very much with us."
Almost 1 in 4 new cases are variants
Hinshaw said there is always a time lag between when a case is identified and when screening for variants is completed, but currently about 20 to 25 per cent of new cases are variants.
Evidence from other countries suggests the variant will eventually become the dominant strain.
"The important thing for all Albertans to know is that the only way that we're going to be able to slow the growth overall, but particularly with the variant cases, is to follow the public health measures every day in every activity that we do," she said.
"Because what we are seeing is that the variant is spreading widely in locations where people are not following the public health measures and where they've let their guard down."
Hinshaw asked people to think back to November, when cases and hospitalizations began to grow quickly. From mid-November to late December, the number of people needing hospital care for COVID-19 grew by 200 to 250 every two weeks, going from 270 people in hospital on Nov. 12, to 927 six weeks later.
"The reality is that once we hit a growth phase of this virus, our numbers will not stand still," she said. "That's why we all need to continue doing our part to not only follow the letter of the law and the public health orders, but the spirit of them as well.
"While immunizations will eventually protect those who are most vulnerable, we are not yet at a point where we have protected this whole group."
No date to move to Step 3
The health minister said the government understands the frustrations many Albertans are feeling.
"We have an incredible amount of sympathy and empathy for everybody who is frustrated with these measures and looking forward not just to the light at the end of the tunnel, but the end of the tunnel, and us being able to get back to normal life.
There is no specific date for moving forward with Step 3, he said.
"The prudent and safe thing to do is for us to be able to hold off on proceeding with Step 3, continue to monitor the situation and move forward with Step 3 when it is prudent and safe for us to do so."