Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Tuesday that while the province’s positivity rate for COVID-19 is improving, the health-care system continues to struggle under the weight of hundreds of people being in hospital with the disease.
“The positivity rate is declining,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton, noting it currently sits at 5.6 per cent. “But (it’s) still far above the one to three per cent we saw in summer and fall.”
She said 740 people remain in hospital with COVID-19 in Alberta and added that 119 people are in intensive care units.
“Our health-care system is still under severe strain,” Hinshaw said.
She noted health officials are seeing a decline in total numbers of Albertans being tested for COVID-19 in recent weeks. She said that while it’s possible less people are getting sick, health officials don’t yet know for certain what the reason for the drop in numbers is. She said anyone with symptoms should continue to follow guidelines to stay home and book a test immediately.
Hinshaw added that she has heard Albertans want to know when more pandemic-related restrictions will be lifted after some public health orders and guidelines were eased on Monday.
“It’s natural to want to get back to all the things that we’ve missed during the last six weeks,” she acknowledged. “However… (the strain on our health system) continues to impact our ability to deliver care not only for COVID-19, but all the other health needs that Albertans have.
“I know this is challenging, but we all must continue supporting each other by doing everything possible to reduce the spread of COVID(-19) and to protect our health system for a little while longer.
“The more successful we can be at this reduction, the sooner we are in a position where we can consider safely and slowly relaxing other measures in the days and weeks ahead.”
Vaccine supply questions
Hinshaw said health officials are currently working on how to adapt Alberta’s vaccination plans in the short term after learning earlier in the day that Canada will receive zero doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the last week of January.
She said while she did not have exact figures for how many Pfizer doses Alberta currently has in its possession, the province did get some Pfizer doses this week and does still have doses of the Moderna vaccine which is being prioritized for people’s second doses.
“We just received that news this morning and so we’re working very hard to adjust our planning,” Hinshaw said. “We don’t yet know exactly how much Pfizer vaccine we’ll receive in the first two weeks of February.”
Hinshaw added that second doses for people who already received their first dose in long-term care or supportive living facilities remain the priority as that demographic makes up two-thirds of Alberta’s COVID-19 deaths.
This delay in vaccine shipments is because Pfizer is scaling up its European manufacturing capacity, something officials say will impact the vaccine’s production for a “short period.”
Health Minister Tyler Shandro issued a statement about the Pfizer situation on Tuesday afternoon in which he said he was “extremely concerned” about no doses being expected in the last week of January and “further anticipated reductions in the two weeks following.”
“As of Jan. 18, 92,315 doses have been administered across our province, making Alberta one of the fastest and most dynamic providers of vaccinations in Canada,” he said. “But today’s latest news from Ottawa is yet another setback for the delivery of vaccines to Alberta.
“With fewer vaccines arriving, we have no choice but to focus on delivering second doses for those who have already been vaccinated. All new first dose appointments for eligible health-care workers are being postponed. Some second dose appointments will also need to be rescheduled in the coming weeks.”
Shandro said at this time, the government believes Alberta Health Services will still be able to provide health-care workers who already have their initial vaccination with their second vaccine does within the suggested window for doing so.
“However, some uncertainty exists because it is unknown how much vaccine will be received by Canada in the first two weeks of February,” he added.
Shandro also noted that a sharp decrease of vaccine supply arriving in Alberta could delay the province’s plans to vaccinate all seniors over 75 — regardless of if they live in long-term care or supportive living situations — and people over the age of 65 in First Nations communities or living in Métis settlements.
“We would like to vaccinate many, many more Albertans as soon as possible, but we need more vaccines,” the health minister said. “Alberta has the capacity to deliver about 50,000 doses per week and rapidly expand distribution, but we lack supply.
“This is frustrating, but the factory issues in Belgium are out of our control. We will continue to use what we have to protect as many Albertans as possible. And we will continue to inform Albertans of any changes to our vaccination plans.”
Shandro added the provincial government continues to press federal politicians and authorities to increase vaccine supply as soon as possible.
Update on new variants of COVID-19 in Alberta
Hinshaw said that as of this weekend, Alberta health officials had identified 12 cases of the variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the U.K., and two cases of the variant that was first identified in South Africa.
“There continues to be no evidence of community spread,” she explained. “All of these were in people who were returning from travel.
“(I) want to make sure that Albertans remember that if they are travelling — and I would recommend against non-essential travel at this time — if they are travelling, it is critical that they follow precautions when they are away and that they be prepared to follow quarantine or isolation when they come back.
“Albertans need to remember to follow safety precautions no matter where they are, and to make sure that they are not putting themselves and others at risk when they come back.”
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Hinshaw said Tuesday that Alberta recorded 456 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. She said those positive tests were identified after about 8,200 tests were conducted in the same time frame.
There are currently 11,096 active COVID-19 cases in Alberta. Of the active cases, 939 are at long-term care facilities or supported living facilities.
While there are active COVID-19 cases in every health zone in the province, the Calgary zone has the most with 4,249, followed by the Edmonton zone with 3,875.
As of Tuesday, 105,208 Albertans had recovered from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
The province also announced 17 more deaths attributed to the disease on Tuesday.
“My deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of these individuals,” Hinshaw said.
Alberta Health said a death that was previously attributed to the disease is no longer believed to have a link to COVID-19.
Of the deaths announced Tuesday, eight were linked to COVID-19 outbreaks in the Calgary zone: a woman in her 80s with comorbidities at Bethany Airdrie, a woman in her 100s with comorbidities at Bow View Manor, a woman in her 70s with comorbidities at Foothills Medical Centre, two women with comorbidities in their 80s at AgeCare SkyPointe, a man in his 80s with comorbidities at AgeCare Walden Heights, a man in his 90s with comorbidities at Auburn Heights Retirement Residence and a man in his 80s with comorbidities at Academy of Aging.
Five of the deaths announced Tuesday were in the Central zone: a man in his 80s with comorbidities and who was linked to an outbreak at Points Living West, a woman in her 80s with comorbidities, a man in his 80s with comorbidities, a man in his 60s with unknown comorbidities and a woman in her 70s with no known comorbidities.
Two of the latest deaths were in the Edmonton zone: a man and a woman in their 90s — both with comorbidities — who were linked to an outbreak at the Misericordia Community Hospital.
The other two fatalities were in the North zone: a woman in her 80s with comorbidities who was linked to an outbreak at St. Therese – St. Paul Healthcare Centre and a woman in her 80s with unknown comorbidities.
Hinshaw said there were active alerts at 147 schools in Alberta on Tuesday and outbreaks in two schools. In total, 212 active cases were being linked to schools in the province on Tuesday.