Don't be fooled by falling case numbers, Alberta's COVID-19 situation remains precarious

·4 min read
A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital, in Toronto, on May 26, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
A nurse tends to a patient suspected of having COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at North York General Hospital, in Toronto, on May 26, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Alberta is seeing its COVID-19 numbers improve, but the threat of another deadly winter still looms large.

Albertans won't soon forget the brutal second wave of the virus, as 1,154 Albertans died with COVID-19 in December and January — more than a third of the province's COVID deaths during the entire pandemic.

While vaccines have changed the game significantly, there have still been more than 700 COVID-19 deaths in September and October as the deadly Delta variant sweeps across the province.

Though the spread of COVID-19 has dropped drastically in the past six weeks, pressure on the province's health system remains about as high as the peak of the third wave and almost as high as the second.

Daily case counts have had much of the attention for the past 18 months, but one expert suggests Albertans should now be looking at the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU admissions as the key metric

COVID-19 patients in Alberta hospitals

"There's still no margin for error here that if cases circling back up while we still have these ridiculously high hospital numbers, we will be back over capacity before we know it," said Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Jenne says there is still the potential for another severe wave of COVID-19 to hit Alberta, unless the province is able to get almost everyone vaccinated.

The possibility of being able to vaccinate children between the ages of five and 12 would help significantly in this regard, Jenne said.

While immunization numbers have jumped since the province introduced its version of a vaccine passport, a look at the province's entire population still shows about one in three Albertans aren't fully vaccinated.

In some rural areas, the vaccination rate is far, far worse.

That means any talk of lifting restrictions is premature, Jenne said.

Albertans have already seen what happens when there are virtually no restrictions and the Delta variant is able to spread through a population that doesn't have enough immunity.

"As we've been seeing, although the most vulnerable in the community are vaccinated, when infection numbers go up exponentially, unfortunately, mortality and death follows that," he said.

COVID-19 deaths in Alberta by date of death (where known)

There have certainly been lessons learned from the province's move to endemic response, a direction Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw admits was a mistake.

The hope is that those lessons are taken to heart.

The pandemic has been a perpetual yo-yo between lifting restrictions and imposing them, but it appears Alberta is ready to stay the course with its vaccine passport for the next few months.

Alberta Health told CBC News Thursday the restriction exemption program will remain in place through at least the first quarter of 2022.

Hinshaw said the restrictions exemption program has put the province in a far better position, COVID-wise, than it was even six weeks ago. But those positive trends need to continue to finally get beyond the current wave.

"We do need to continue all of those things — continue increasing vaccination coverage, and continue reducing our in-person interactions so that we can get our acute-care system out of this difficult spot," she said at a news conference Thursday.

Given the province's experience in the fourth wave that pushed the province's health system to its limits, it's worth thinking about.

Although positive trends are expected to continue in Alberta, Jenne points out there is always the risk of a new variant or people changing their behaviours significantly that leads to cases and hospitalizations rising once again.

Even those positive projections are based on the province keeping its current level of restrictions.

There is certainly good news to be found in the province's recent approach to COVID: A vaccine passport will help to increase vaccination and will decrease spread of the virus.

But hospitalizations take longer to go down and COVID-19 can be unpredictable.

University of Victoria physics professor and member of British Columbia's independent COVID-19 modelling group Dean Karlen told CBC that trends should stay positive but there are two 'ifs': Albertans maintaining their current level of transmission and current behaviours.

"It is in the hands of Albertans and leaders in Alberta to define its future."

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