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COVID-19 death toll in Alberta surpasses 1,000; 1st case of U.K. variant identified

Over the past five days, 112 additional deaths due to COVID-19 were reported to Alberta Health, bringing the provincial death toll up to 1,002.

“This tragic milestone is more than a number or statistic,” Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement Monday.

“Each one means that there is a family that is grieving, a friend who has lost someone they loved, a child who lost their parent, a partner who lost their true love.

“Words cannot ease the pain caused by this loss, and I know it seems unfair that public safety measures mean we cannot say a proper goodbye to those who mean so much to us. This is part of COVID-19’s heartbreaking cost,” the premier said.

“It is why we must all work together to support those who have lost someone and do all we can to spare others from experiencing this grief.”

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Click to play video 'More than 1,000 Albertans have died of COVID-19' More than 1,000 Albertans have died of COVID-19
More than 1,000 Albertans have died of COVID-19 – Dec 28, 2020

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Monday 917 new cases had been identified in the last 24 hours. Over that time period, 9,633 tests were completed.

An additional 20 deaths were reported Monday.

Out of the 20 deaths reported Monday, 14 were linked to outbreaks at long-term care sites or hospitals. A woman in her 40s in the Central zone, two men in their 70s from the Edmonton zone, and a man in his 60s from the Edmonton zone also died.

Hinshaw pointed out the death rate in Quebec is 95 per 100,000 population. In B.C., it’s 16 per 100,000 population, while in Alberta, it’s 20 per 100,000.

Click to play video 'Concerns grow over new coronavirus variant in Canada' Concerns grow over new coronavirus variant in Canada
Concerns grow over new coronavirus variant in Canada – Dec 28, 2020

Hinshaw said Alberta’s positivity rate over the past few days has ranged from 6.4 per cent to 9.6 per cent.

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On Dec. 23, out of 15,585 tests, 1,007 cases were identified. Thirty deaths were reported that day.

On Dec. 24, out of 17,845 tests, 1,191 cases were identified. Eighteen deaths were reported that day.

On Dec. 25, 14,193 tests were done and 914 new cases identified. Seventeen deaths were reported.

On Dec. 26, 6,866 tests were done and 459 new cases identified. Twenty-seven deaths were reported.

Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta reports 500 COVID-19 cases Boxing Day amid fewer tests

While lower case numbers are encouraging, Hinshaw said they’re partly due to fewer people getting tested over the holidays.

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“We also know that things like deaths, hospitalizations, ICU, are what we call lagging indicators. They happen one to two weeks after case numbers start to decline.”

As of Monday, there were 878 Albertans in hospital, 148 of whom were in ICU.

Hinshaw said Alberta has not yet reached the point where backup space – like the Butterdome field hospital – needs to be activated.

U.K. coronavirus variant

B.C. and Ontario were the first to report cases caused by the COVID-19 variant – linked to recent travel to the U.K.

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Read more: Canada reports first cases of U.K. coronavirus variant. Here’s what you need to know

Hinshaw confirmed Monday that Alberta has also identified one COVID-19 case caused by this variant in someone who recently arrived from the U.K.

“This individual did everything they were supposed to do,” Alberta’s top doctor said, adding there’s “no evidence that there has been any further spread.”

Click to play video '1 case of COVID-19 U.K. variant identified in Alberta' 1 case of COVID-19 U.K. variant identified in Alberta
1 case of COVID-19 U.K. variant identified in Alberta – Dec 28, 2020

She stressed the health measures currently in place help stop transmission.

“We are working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to be able to get the flight details and a list of individuals who were on the same plane,” she said, specifically those seated in nearby rows.

There was a time delay between when the person arrived in Alberta and when symptoms started, Hinshaw explained.

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“At the moment, we have looked at the situation and believe the risk is very low.”

She said there is currently no evidence to suggest the current vaccines would be less effective against the variant.

“Work is underway right now to determine whether or not the changes in the protein on the surface of the virus would change how effective the vaccine is,” she said.

“The information that I’ve received, that I’ve read, there’s no current evidence that it will not be effective.”

Click to play video 'Alberta watching closely for U.K. variant spread: Hinshaw' Alberta watching closely for U.K. variant spread: Hinshaw
Alberta watching closely for U.K. variant spread: Hinshaw – Dec 28, 2020

Alberta is strongly recommending anyone returning from travel to the U.K. or South Africa be tested immediately for COVID-19.

Anyone returning from travel outside Canada is required to self-isolate for 14 days.

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Vaccine update

Hinshaw said 6,016 doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been administered in Alberta over the last two weeks.

She thanked Alberta Health Service workers for offering shots every day over the holidays – except for Christmas Day.

AHS has been able to staff the vaccine program because planning has been in the works for months in anticipation of a vaccine, Hinshaw said.

“They have done that by making sure… to move workers who would usually be involved in these types of programs, to shift their duties to provide the COVID-19 vaccine over the holidays.”

She explained this won’t be pulling human resources away from hospitals, ICUs or COVID-19 wards.

“Staff who are being deployed to deliver vaccine are staff who typically work in other areas,” Hinshaw said, like school vaccination programs, for instance. “The people who are providing the immunization are not the same group of people who would be working in ICU or a COVID ward.”

In some cases, she said, other health-care services are being delayed or cancelled.

AHS is “looking at some of the services that can be deferred or delayed and (staff) are redeployed into areas where patients with COVID-19 are being cared for.”

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Read more: Christmas comes early as first Moderna vaccines arrive in Canada

When it comes to the Moderna vaccine, Alberta expects to receive doses “at some point this week” but hasn’t heard details on the specific number of doses yet, Hinshaw said.

It will likely take several weeks before final decisions are made on who will be eligible to receive the next round of vaccinations.

“Our top priority is to prevent the most severe outcomes,” Hinshaw said, explaining that is why Alberta will focus on long-term care centres first.

Read more: Alberta updates COVID-19 restrictions; exemptions for massage, counselling, single people

Alberta officials are working with the national advisory committee, ethicists and a team of Alberta consultants to determine which groups will be included in the second rollout of vaccine.

“We know there are many, many Albertans who can benefit from this vaccine,” Hinshaw said. “Because it is a scarce resource, we have to take into account all those elements to make sure we’re allocating it in an ethical way.”

Click to play video 'Alberta working with ethicists, advisory committee to determine who gets COVID-19 vaccine next' Alberta working with ethicists, advisory committee to determine who gets COVID-19 vaccine next
Alberta working with ethicists, advisory committee to determine who gets COVID-19 vaccine next – Dec 28, 2020

Alberta put in stricter restrictions earlier this month to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including closing restaurants, bars and gyms, restricting retail capacity and banning indoor and outdoor social gatherings with anyone outside your immediate household.

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The public health restrictions will remain in place until at least Jan. 12.

However, an exception was announced just before Christmas, permitting anyone who lives alone to join another household for one gathering between Dec. 23 and 28.

Click to play video 'Alberta ‘not out of the woods yet’ after 2 weeks of restrictions: Hinshaw' Alberta ‘not out of the woods yet’ after 2 weeks of restrictions: Hinshaw
Alberta ‘not out of the woods yet’ after 2 weeks of restrictions: Hinshaw – Dec 28, 2020