Alberta’s health minister says information suggesting one of the province’s 20 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom may have been the result of community transmission is “very concerning.”
Tyler Shandro gave an update Monday on the cases of the two variants he called most concerning: the one spreading rapidly through the U.K. and the one detected in South Africa. There were five cases of the South African variant in Alberta as of Monday.
“Virtually all these cases are directly linked to international travel, however, one case of the U.K. variant has not been linked to travel,” he said.
“This means that it may have entered the broader community.
“Let me be blunt – this, now, is very concerning.”
Alberta continues to see a decline in active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Shandro said while there’s no substantial evidence to suggest the variants are more deadly, research shows they have a “significantly higher infection rate, estimated to be 30 to 50 per cent higher than the strain that we’ve had in Alberta to date.”
He pointed to increasing cases, hospitalizations and deaths in both the U.K. and Ireland as an example of how quickly the virus can be spread through a population, adding that the variant has now led to the highest daily number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.K.
“So far, Canada has not seen these variants spreading in large numbers, but that might be changing. The U.K. variant that is now here in Alberta has reportedly also been identified in an outbreak at an Ontario long-term care facility. This outbreak has seen more than 200 residents and staff infected within a few weeks and more than 30 people have lost their lives.
“There’s no question that these new variants pose a threat to those who are most at risk including those who are in continuing care.”
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the non-travel-related case was detected on the weekend, and is the only case not linked to travel found in the more than 1,000 samples screened last week.
“We are working very closely with local public health to identify any potential contact and to ensure that they are quarantining, that they are tested,” Hinshaw said about the follow-up to that result.
“We’re working not only in that go-forward – the important piece about making sure that we are limiting any potential for further onward spread, but also doing that backwards contact-tracing to try to understand whether there are any linkages… to travel.”
Hinshaw said this case of the U.K. variant was found as part of the regular screening processes done in COVID-19 testing labs.
Shandro presented projections for if the U.K. variant became the dominant strain in Alberta, adding that while that isn’t inevitable, the numbers allow Albertans to understand the potential risks. He said the projections would be similar for the South African variant.
There would be a significant increase in daily case numbers, with as many as 10,217 being reported over a 24-hour period in a six-week period where no health measures were in place. That’s compared to an estimated 2,217 new cases of the current strain of COVID-19 in the same timeframe, without health restrictions.
Officials also projected that hospitalizations would more than triple over an eight-week period – from 1,073 to 3,611 – if the U.K. strain was spreading “unchecked” through the population.
“Now while the two variants do not currently appear to be more deadly than our current strain, we know that when more people contract the virus, we’ll see more hospitalizations and then we will see more deaths,” Shandro said.
He also presented data showing that if the U.K. variant were to spread uncontrolled in Alberta, over a seven-week period, ICU admissions would go from a projected 200 to 800.
“There’s no question that this kind of exponential growth would push our health-care system to the brink,” he said.
“It would significantly impact the health care and the services available all Albertans.”
Shandro said the projections are “one glimpse of what could happen,” and stressed they “show a scenario where Alberta has no health measures in place to limit transmission.”
“They show what would happen if we did not take steps to identify variant cases and to stop their spread in the community.”
Shandro said the province is taking steps to control the spread of variants and prevent spread in the community, including increasing genetic testing.
Alberta Precision Labs is aiming to be able to do genetic analysis on 400 samples per week, by next week, Shandro said. Officials also hope 300 tests each day will be screened for mutations of concern by next week.
The border pilot program is also being changed and travellers are no longer able to leave their isolation after their first negative COVID-19 test.
“Effective immediately, participants must remain in isolation until their second negative test comes back. If either of these comes back positive, that person must isolate for the first 14 days.
“All travellers currently in the program who have not received the results of their second test must return to quarantine immediately.”
All positive test results done through the border pilot project will be analyzed for both the South African and U.K. variants.
Shandro said the province is also “being cautious” when it comes to lifting current public health measures.
“Things are looking up and many Albertans are wondering when we can relax the current restrictions,” Shandro said, adding he hopes Monday’s projections on possible variant spread brings some context to the question.
“These new variants present a new threat and a complicated factor when it comes to relaxing restrictions.
“We need to continue to proceed cautiously, recognizing that our health system is still under significant strain.”
Shandro said it’s believed the vaccines currently being administered protect against both variants of the virus, and said both Moderna and Pfizer are studying the variants so the vaccines can be adapted if necessary.
He once again stressed the fact that Alberta needs more doses of both vaccines, as the entire country faces a shortage due to delays with the Pfizer vaccine.
As of Monday, 99,453 doses of vaccine had been given to Albertans as part of Phase 1A, with almost 10,000 of those being fully immunized with both doses.
“But we depend on the government of Canada for vaccine supply and Canada is being hit harder than others with reduced vaccine shipments.”
Shandro said Alberta has the capacity to administer 50,000 vaccines per week, and could scale that capacity up when increased supply is guaranteed.
“It simply depends on the supply. We need more doses now and we need them urgently due to the increased threat posed by the new variants.”
Shandro said Albertans will be getting weekly updates on the variants in the province.
Monday case numbers
Alberta confirmed 362 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday. Those cases were found after about 7,200 tests were performed, putting the province’s positivity rate at about five per cent. The province’s R value, or rate of transmission, was about 0.81.
As of Monday, 637 people were being treated in hospital with COVID-19, with 113 in intensive care units.
Hinshaw also announced that due to a technical glitch, 409 additional cases of COVID-19 have been added to the province’s total case count. Hinshaw said those cases occurred over a five-week period between Dec. 7 and Jan. 13.
Hinshaw said the cases were all linked to the province’s rapid tests, which are being used in targeted settings in the province. Hinshaw said all of the affected patients still received their test results, they just weren’t reported online until Monday.
Twenty-five more deaths from COVID-19 were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
In the Edmonton zone, five more deaths have been linked to the outbreak at the Miller Crossing Care Centre, including a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 80s, a woman in her 90s, a woman in her 100s and a man in his 80s. All five cases included comorbidities.
A man in his 90s linked to the McTaggart Place Retirement Residence in the Edmonton zone died. That case included comorbidities.
A man in his 70s linked to the Aspen House outbreak in the Edmonton zone died. His case included comorbidities.
A man in his 80s linked to an outbreak at Canterbury Court in the Edmonton zone died. His case included comorbidities.
The death of a man in his 80s linked to an outbreak at Garneau Hall in the Edmonton zone was also reported. His case included comorbidities.
Several deaths in the Edmonton zone were not linked to any outbreaks, including a man in his 40s, a woman in her 50s and a man in his 60s. Those cases did not have known comorbidities. Two women in their 80s, two men in their 80s and a woman in her 90s also died from COVID-19. Those five cases included comorbidities.
Six deaths were reported in the Calgary zone, five of which were linked to outbreaks at care centres.
Two people – a man in his 50s and a woman in her 60s – linked to the AgeCare SkyPointe outbreak died. Both cases included comorbidities.
A man and woman — both in their 90s — linked to the outbreak at Manor Village at Fish Creek Park died. Both cases included comorbidities.
There was an additional death linked to the outbreak at the Foothills Medical Centre: a man in his 90s. His case included comorbidities.
A woman in her 70s living in the Calgary zone also died, but her case was not linked to any outbreak. Comorbidities in that case were not known.
One death was reported in the South zone: a woman in her 70s whose case included comorbidities.
In the North zone, the death of a woman in her 90s linked to the outbreak at the St. Therese – St. Paul Healthcare Centre was reported. The case included comorbidities.View link »