COVID-19 variant may have entered the community, Alberta health minister says

·4 min read
COVID-19 variant may have entered the community, Alberta health minister says

A variant of the COVID-19 virus known for its ease of transmission appears to have already entered the community, Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said in a news conference Monday.

"Let me be blunt: This now is very concerning," Shandro said.

Alberta has found 20 cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, with all but one directly linked to travel, he said.

That one case of the B117 variant has raised concerns that there may be more cases in the province.

There are two coronavirus variants of concern, one first identified in the U.K. and one in South Africa.

Five cases of the variant first identified in South Africa have also been found in Alberta, all related to travel.

The ease in which these variants spread would cause huge spikes in Alberta's COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths, particularly without health measures in place to slow transmission, Shandro said.

"These variants can spread very quickly," Shandro said. "The emerging research indicates that they have a significantly higher infection rate, estimated to be 30 to 50 per cent higher than the strain that we've had in Alberta to date."

Cases skyrocket in U.K.

England and Ireland have seen the variant spread rapidly throughout their populations and the U.K.'s daily mortality rate is the highest it's been since the start of the pandemic, he said.

"Both countries saw a sharp increase in the number of cases, putting more strain on health-care resources, leading to more hospitalizations and ultimately strict lock down measures.

Canada has not seen the variants spreading in large numbers, but that might be changing, he said.

"There's no question this kind of exponential growth would push our health-care system to the brink," he said. "It would significantly impact the health-care system and the services available to all Albertans."

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the non-travel case of the variant was the only one identified in the more than 1,000 samples screened last week by the lab.

"While we continue to investigate this case to see if we can identify any contacts who may have had a travel exposure, this is a potentially concerning development," she said. "It underlines the importance of the work that our lab has been doing to expand their capacity to screen positive cases for genetic mutations of concern.

"If additional steps are required to prevent the spread of variants in Alberta, we will take action to do so."

The province is increasing its testing for variants with plans to have labs increase capacity for full genetic testing to 400 per week and 300 per day of the testing for variants, Shandro said.

Restrictions remain

The presence of the variants in the province complicates when health restrictions will be relaxed, he said.

"We need to continue to proceed cautiously," Shandro said. "If we are not careful, the health system could be in dire straits."

Alberta reported 362 new cases of COVID-19 Monday and 25 additional deaths.

There are now 637 people in hospital with the disease, 113 of them in intensive care. Labs performed 7,200 tests for the virus in the last 24 hours, with a positivity rate of about five per cent.

Shandro acknowledged many businesses are anxious about the continuing restrictions.

But, he said, easing restrictions depends on hospitalization rates and other metrics.

"We understand that the balance of the restrictions against the social and the economic consequences of them but our focus is going to be on a risk-based approach, not essential versus non-essential."

Shandro said the province will continue to work with sectors such as the restaurant industry to come up with a plan for easing restrictions.

COVID-19 anniversary

Monday marks one year since the first case of the virus that causes COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada, in a patient who had recently returned from Wuhan, China.

On Jan. 21, 2020, Hinshaw issued her first warning about COVID-19, saying that Alberta was watching developments and taking precautions.

The outbreak in China had tripled in size over the preceding weekend, with hundreds of people ill and six confirmed deaths. First cases had also been confirmed in Thailand, South Korea and Japan.

One week later, on Jan. 28, Alberta activated its first low-level emergency response protocols. At that point, four cases had been confirmed in Canada, more than 9,000 across the globe.

The province confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 5. Since then, 121,535 Albertans have been infected and there have been 1,576 deaths.

As of Sunday, here is how the cases break down across the province:

  • Calgary zone: 3,588

  • Edmonton zone: 3,245

  • North zone: 1,282

  • Central zone: 809

  • South zone: 399

  • Unknown: 14