As Alberta added an additional five deaths and 269 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that officials have also recorded an additional 25 variant cases of the virus since Friday.
“It’s not inevitable that the variant strain would become the dominant strain,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said. “It really depends on all of us and continuing to work together to prevent the spread.”
She added that the additional 25 cases bring the total number of COVID-19 variants confirmed in the province to 96, 46 of which are not linked to travel. She added there has not yet been any variant spread recorded in schools.
The variants of concern – first identified in South Africa and U.K. — spread more easily between people.
“Right now, we’re seeing an average of less than a half a per cent of our cases on any given day coming from variant strains,” Hinshaw said. “And some of the cases we reported over this past weekend are cases that had previously been diagnosed and were just screened for variant on the weekend.
“So it’s important to remember again that these (variant) cases are a trend over time. It is concerning that we are finding more of them in the community without links to travel.”
Hinshaw said that Monday’s 269 positives came from 6,184 tests, giving a provincial positivity rate of 4.3 per cent.
She added that the province is now able to test every positive result for the variants.
“On days like today, our capacity to screen for variants exceeds the number of new cases of COVID-19 that have been identified,” Hinshaw said.
There are now 432 Albertans in hospital, 76 of whom are in intensive care.
Hinshaw also said that with Step 1 of Alberta’s eased restriction plan now in place, it’s especially important that people follow the current rules.
“As we move forward, I know many Albertans are excited about being able to eat in restaurants and enjoy other activities that are now possible. However it remains important that we all keep being careful and keep making safe choices,” she said.
“It’s not just the hospitalization number that matters. It’s also our trends of positive cases, positivity. And it’s really important that we collectively continue to keep our positive cases trending downward.”
There are now 6,196 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. The R value of the virus — or how many people each case spreads to — sits at 0.83.
Alberta Health reported five additional deaths Monday, but also said that four previously-reported deaths have now been determined to not have been related to COVID-19 and have been removed from the provincial fatality list.
That means the total number of fatalities increased by a net of one Monday, to 1,710.
Four of the five deaths reported Tuesday were in Edmonton zone, including a woman in her 40s with no known pre-existing conditions. A woman in her 60s with comorbidities in Edmonton zone also passed away.
Also in Edmonton zone, a man in his 60s linked to the outbreak at Sprucewood Place and a woman in her 90s with comorbidities at the Jubilee Lodge Nursing Home both died.
In North zone, a woman in her 80s with pre-existing conditions connected to the outbreak at Bonnyville Extendicare died.
The eased restrictions are contingent on hospitalization numbers and are the first of a four-step approach to reopening the economy.
Step 2, which include relaxed retail and indoor fitness restrictions, requires hospitalization numbers in the province to be below 450 — on Sunday, there were 434 Albertans in hospital.
Hinshaw said Monday that while there are currently fewer in hospital than is needed for Step 2, it is “too soon” as officials are going to be monitoring Step 1 carefully.
“We deliberately built in a minimum of three weeks between steps to allow us to monitor our hospitalizations, as well as our positivity rate, new case numbers and overall growth rate, to ensure that we are not seeing a rise in transmission linked to activities that have been opened,” Hinshaw said.
With the three-week requirement between steps, the earliest a decision on Step 2 would take effect would be March 1. The province said the same re-evaluation period will be used for all subsequent steps.
Hinshaw also announced Monday that the province would no longer be providing enhanced, watch or open status maps of specific regions as the strategy turns to a more provincial plan.
She said that zones will still be monitored, and more targeted action could be taken in specific zones if there are trends that require them.
Government caution, public fatigue
Lorian Hardcastle, a health law policy expert and professor at the University of Calgary, said Monday that the lack of information around the new variants is adding to the uncertainty in this latest reopening plan.
“The government has to balance that potential with the variant, with of course their desire to reopen things and for the public’s desire to have things reopened,” Hardcastle said.
“I think people are fatigued with the opening and closing, and I think the public, many people want things to be opened.”
Alberta officials announced Saturday that sports group training for youth would be included in Step 1, a decision that led to scrambling for some hockey and dance groups who had been initially told only one-on-one training would be permitted.
Hinshaw said Monday that it was “unfortunate” that the announcement was made on a weekend.
“I’m sorry for that,” she said. “What we have tried to do all along throughout this pandemic is, again, balance those different considerations of making sure we’re minimizing the impacts of COVID and at the same time the impacts of restrictions.”
Alberta officials have said that it is possible the government could backtrack on easing restrictions if cases and hospitalizations begin to increase again.
Hardcastle said that the back-and-forth around public health rules could lead to more public distrust.
“I think it affects the public’s trust in the government and its confidence in those measures if they’re flip-flopping without any new information or evidence,” she said. “So I would be concerned with compliance given that lack of public trust.
“I think we absolutely have to find a balance between personal freedom and public health restrictions,” she said. “I think there is this constant battle that officials, both provincially and federally, are having in terms of how do we balance freedoms with that public health evidence.”