Alberta shattered another COVID-19 record on Thursday, recording "about 800" new cases over the past 24 hours and people may soon be faced with new public health measures to get the numbers under control, says the province's top doctor.
"We are looking closely at what steps we need to recommend to government to protect the health of Albertans," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said at a news conference. "But we need your help as well."
Detailed case numbers were not available due to technical problems with the province's reporting system, Hinshaw said.
"While I don't have detailed case numbers today, I can tell you that about 800 new cases have been identified in the last 24 hours," she said. "Currently nine hospitals across the province have outbreaks, including a new outbreak declared yesterday at the Chinook Regional Hospital.
Hospitals are still safe, she said, and people who need urgent care should not hesitate to seek it.
"That said, I am very concerned about the levels of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Edmonton and Calgary," Hinshaw said. "We must protect our health system by reducing community transmission. The fact that we are now reporting 800 new cases is extremely concerning.
The rising numbers show that measures introduced 10 days ago in Edmonton and Calgary are not working, she said. That means in seven to 10 days Alberta's hospital numbers will rise further, she said, which means that care for Albertans with other issues besides COVID will be impacted.
Far too many people with symptoms of the illness are still going to work or attending social gatherings, said Hinshaw, who warned that new public health measure will become necessary unless the case numbers soon begin declining.
"In Edmonton, nine per cent of active cases worked while they had symptoms. A further eight per cent visited retail or service businesses, and eight per cent attended a social gathering. The data is similar for Calgary, where 11 per cent worked while symptomatic and nine per cent travelled. Further, seven per cent attended a social gathering."
With more than 2,500 active cases in each city, she said, that means at least 500 people did not stay home while symptomatic.
"This is significant," Hinshaw said. "I am calling on Albertans to please stop all activities if you have any symptoms. By leaving your home for any reason other than getting tested or seeking health care, you are putting others at risk and potentially spreading the virus, so that one case can lead to many."
Social gatherings 'no. 1 driver'
Ten days ago, Alberta announced new public health measures in Calgary and Edmonton, including the mandatory 15-person limit on social gatherings.
"I have had many people ask me why we're focusing on social gatherings," Hinshaw said. "The answer is because it is a problem that is driving COVID-19 spread in our communities. By far the No. 1 driver of new cases we are seeing is exposure in households and private gatherings."
About 40 per cent of the active cases in Calgary and Edmonton were exposed either at home or at private gatherings, she said.
"If we could reduce cases in this area alone, then we would be quickly able to bend the curve back down."
The other major concern is that many cases have unknown exposures, she said.
"This is another problem that can only be solved if we work together," Hinshaw said. "By reducing the wait times for booking a test, shortening the wait for test results, and hiring more contact tracers, we will shorten the gap between when a person is exposed and when a contact tracer is able to talk to cases, identify their close contacts and break the chain of transmission.
"The shorter this gap is, the easier it becomes to identify exposure sources and reduce the spread of COVID."
Contract tracers falling behind
As cases have risen rapidly, Alberta is experiencing problems with contact tracing, Hinshaw said.
"AHS does not currently have the capacity to call every contact of every case in a timely way," she said. "Effective today, as an interim measure until more contact tracers can be hired and trained, AHS will be focusing their contact tracing on high-priority settings only.
Every confirmed case will still be called by AHS to identify whether they have a link to a continuing-care facility, a hospital or a school, she said.
If someone attended a group event such as a wedding, a party or a group fitness class while infectious, the organizers of those events will still be contacted to ensure attendees are notified.
"But if cases are not linked to a high-priority setting, the case will be provided with information and asked to notify their own contacts of exposures, and the need to self-isolate and get tested.
"I ask anyone who is notified that they are a close contact, whether by AHS or directly by someone you know, please be compassionate. You are being notified for your own protection and the protection of those around you. Please self-isolate immediately and get tested if you are identified as a close contact."
'We need to change the trend in this province'
There is no single way to combat the pandemic, which has reached a "critical juncture," Hinshaw said.
"We need to change the trend in this province. While Calgary and Edmonton have the highest active case numbers, we have seen a concerning rise in numbers outside these two cities as well.
Forty-six municipalities are now on watch, with more than 50 active cases per 100,000, and 29 communities have more than 100 active cases per 100,000 population.
"Our health-care system cannot care for the increasing volume of COVID cases without stopping other services, which is happening now. Unless our numbers decline dramatically in the next few days, we will have to consider additional measures to bring COVID numbers down in order to protect our health system."
Active cases of the illness in Alberta have quadrupled in the last five weeks.
That stark reality prompted the province's chief medical officer of health to issue a dire warning earlier this week.
"When COVID-19 starts to escalate, it can do so quickly and dramatically," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday at a news conference. "Within the next few days, we will start to see if the recent public health measures, including the limits on social gatherings in Edmonton and Calgary, are enough to reduce the rate of transmission.
"If they are not, we must consider other options."
Albertans will find out later today just where those case numbers are headed. Dr. Hinshaw will update the province at a news conference scheduled for 3:30 p.m.
That news conference has been temporarily postponed.
Alberta has reported a total of 2,783 new cases of COVID-19 over the past five days.
That's an average of 556 cases each day.
Active cases in the province have been rising steadily for five weeks, and for some time now each day's total breaks the record set the day before.
At the end of September, Alberta's active case total stood at 1,574. Over the next five weeks that quadrupled.
Wednesday, Sept. 30, 1,574 active cases.
Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2,062 active cases.
Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2,743 active cases.
Wednesday, Oct. 21, 3,537 active cases.
Wednesday, Oct. 28, 4,943 active cases.
The latest update, which reported numbers as of Tuesday, again set a new record with 6,230 active cases.