Variants, rise in positivity should factor into Alberta's reopening plans: top doctor

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EDMONTON — Alberta's top doctor says it's important to consider trends in COVID-19 variant cases and test positivity rates when deciding whether the province should further ease restrictions next week.

Chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday that the variant first identified in the United Kingdom has become established in the community. A much smaller number of variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil have only been linked to travel.

The U.K. variant "is spreading in many different contexts and many different settings and we're seeing higher attack rates than we typically do in settings where people are exposed," Hinshaw said.

She said it is spreading everywhere in the province.

Alberta could further ease restrictions as early as Monday on adult team sports, casinos, racing centres, bingo halls, indoor social gatherings, indoor seated events, museums, art galleries, zoos and places of worship.

To move into that phase, COVID-19 hospitalizations would need to be below 300. As of Wednesday's update, there were 262 infected patients in hospital, including 44 in intensive care.

Hinshaw has said leading indicators, which would be reflected in the health-care system weeks from now, are also a factor.

Alberta reported 479 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, 50 of which were variants.

Eleven per cent of the province's active cases involved variants, up from three per cent in late January.

The test positivity rate was 4.7 per cent, down from 5.9 per cent a day earlier.

On Monday, Hinshaw said the R-value — which measures how many new infections result from each case — was 1.07, meaning the virus is spreading.

Hinshaw said it's up to the Alberta government cabinet to decide whether to open more activities and businesses.

She noted that many places around the world where variants are dominant have seen significant third waves and spikes in deaths.

"We need to make sure that we are watching closely other jurisdictions and considering all those factors in any potential easings and moving forward, given we are in this very critical time where the variant is rising and we don't yet have enough vaccine on board to protect those who are most vulnerable."

Hinshaw said as of Wednesday nearly 397,500 doses had been administered.

Shipments of the Moderna vaccine have been delayed by a few days to 43 pharmacies because a mechanical issue grounded an airplane outside the province, she said.

But appointments are still available, and on Thursday morning, all Albertans born in 1952 and earlier and Indigenous people born in 1967 and earlier can sign up to get a shot.

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2021.

The Canadian Press