Alberta infectious disease experts say even though the province's COVID-19 situation is better than it's been in a while, now is not the time to let down your guard.
Hospitalizations and deaths, while still high, are trending down. Wastewater levels of the SARS CoV-2 virus appear to be dropping in many regions, too.
"We're in a much, much better place than we were, for example, last January," said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.
He warned, though, that this good news comes with a caveat.
"If we compare the levels of coronavirus in the community to earlier time points — so late 2020, mid-2021— the numbers are still very high. So although trending in the right direction, it says there is still a lot of baseline transmission out there in the community."
And there is a wildcard at play.
The more transmissible XBB.1.5 subvariant is spreading in Alberta.
According to Jenne, the kind of surge it could cause won't likely be known for another three to four weeks.
"With a new variant, we might be seeing increased cases over the next several weeks," he said.
"It is still out there, and we need to not let our guard down. We can and we have seen new waves develop when we get lax."
COVID-19 hospital admissions down
"[It's] almost eerily calm in a way," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease physician with the University of Alberta, when asked how she would characterize the state of COVID-19 in Alberta.
She's noticed a dramatic change in COVID trends.
"We still see people who are at higher risk of severe outcomes coming into hospital significantly ill. But the proportion of that, out of everything that's coming into hospital, is so much less than it was at the same time last year," she said.
Saxinger is urging Albertans to be vigilant but not panicked as the new Omicron subvariant makes its move.
"At the moment, [XBB.1.5] doesn't seem to be behaving all that different from the dominant BA.5 strain that we've been dealing with. But that could change," she said.
"I do think that it's worth watching because, to me, the worst possible thing would be everyone is relaxed and not paying attention and we end up with a variant that … has a competitive advantage and is more aggressive."
Deaths still high
Alberta reported 27 more COVID-19 deaths last week, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 5,470.
Jenne wants people to know that's still far higher than influenza death tolls.
On average, Alberta records between 100 and 120 influenza deaths during an entire flu season, he said.
"Right now, we're losing 30 [due to COVID] per week. So, in a matter of just a few weeks, we eclipse an entire flu season. Although the numbers are trending in the right direction, they are still tragically high."
Both Jenne and Saxinger will be watching the COVID trends closely in the weeks to come.
And they're urging people to ensure their COVID-19 shots are up to date.
"I think people are kind of getting tired of getting vaccines. But it's a pretty simple thing to do to prevent a pretty unpleasant illness," Saxinger said.
"Some people do have longer-term symptoms, and it's very worth preventing that as well."