Alberta’s chief medical officer of health told reporters Wednesday that health officials have identified two cases involving a variant strain of COVID-19 in which in-school transmission was “likely” the cause.
“Health officials are responding and making sure that anyone who is at risk is in quarantine and being offered testing twice,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said at a news conference in Edmonton.
She said she was informed of the development earlier in the day and said while she is now aware of “seven classes in six schools overall where a variant case has attended while infectious,” this is the first time the likely transmission of a variant has been detected in a school.
Health officials have said there is evidence suggesting the new variants have the potential to spread much more easily.
“Just as our currently dominant strain of COVID-19 occasionally spreads in school, we will identify occasional examples of variant transmission as we are sharing today,” Hinshaw said. “However, knowing about variant cases means we can limit further spread and the majority of in-school exposures — so far — have not led to transmission.
“We’ve seen transmission within a few different settings… A daycare, now in a school, we’re looking into some other potential clusters. We’ve seen significant in-household transmission, which isn’t surprising.
“This particular incident of transmission in school is again one of many reasons why I’m concerned about the variant, but I don’t think it changes the threshold beyond the other locations where we have identified spread.”
Hinshaw did not say which COVID-19 variants are believed to have been transmitted in school.
When asked what part of Alberta the transmission is believed to have occurred in, Hinshaw declined to answer, in part because she said she was not sure if everyone who needed to be contacted about the development has been reached yet.
She added that “it’s not that there’s any additional danger to those who may live near” where the transmission occurred, and the number of variant cases per zone would be more important for Albertans to follow in terms of a “public health and risk standpoint.”
Hinshaw said she did not yet have specific details on what the students were doing when it is believed they had contracted the illness but said she hopes to be able to provide those details soon. However, she did say the two cases were from “the same exposure” and from the same class.
“We will be doing, of course, further follow-up — at the moment based on the number of schools where we’ve had an individual who’s infectious attend while infectious, where we haven’t identified any further spread,” she added. “This does seem like not the norm for the variant, but rather an outlier. But we will, of course, be working with local public health to determine if there’s anything to learn from this that may impact our approach to schools.
“At this time it seems like the in-school approach is appropriate for the current situation.”
When it comes to COVID-19 variants, Hinshaw said the most important way to limit their spread is that same way Albertans have been asked to take precautions with the dominant strain of the novel coronavirus currently circulating in the province. She said it’s also important that health officials are able to rapidly idenitify cases involving a variant strain and pursue aggressive testing measures in order to quickly isolate the cases.
Hinshaw said Wednesday that overall, 16 more COVID-19 cases involving novel coronavirus variants have been identified in the past 24 hours. As of Wednesday afternoon, the total number of COVID-19 cases involving variants in Alberta had reached 120.
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Hinshaw said Wednesday that in total, 339 new cases of COVID-19 had been detected in Alberta over the course of the past 24 hours. The case were identified after over 10,800 coronavirus tests were administered over the same time frame.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Alberta’s COVID-19 positivity rate sat at 3.2 per cent.
“I continue to ask all Albertans to stay home and get tested if you experience even minor symptoms… or are a close contact (of someone who tested positive for COVID-19),” Hinshaw said.
She noted 421 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19 in the province, with 77 people in intensive care units.
“While this is well below our peak in December, it’s still about five to seven times higher than our total in spring and summer,” Hinshaw said.
She added that with the province having loosened some of its pandemic-related restrictions earlier this week, health officials will be keeping a close eye on hospitalizations and other metrics to determine whether any adjustments to the plan are needed.
Over the past 24 hours, Hinshaw said six more people in Alberta had died of COVID-19. She offered her condolences to those who have lost loved ones and also spoke about the importance of maintaining mental health during the pandemic.
Alberta Health said all six of the latest fatalities included comorbidities.
Two of the deaths occurred in the Edmonton zone: a woman in her 90s linked to the outbreak at Rosedale Estates and a man in his 70s.
Two of the deaths occurred in the Central zone: a woman in her 100s linked to the outbreak at Vermillion Health Centre – Long Term Care and a woman in her 80s.
Two of the deaths occurred in the Calgary zone: a man in his 90s linked to the outbreak at Agecare Sagewood and a woman in her 90s linked to the outbreak at Agecare Glenmore.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Alberta had administered 129,452 doses of COVID-19 vaccine and 36,999 Albertans had been fully immunized with two doses.
Hinshaw said with interruptions in vaccine supply, a plan for Stage 2 of the vaccine rollout plan has yet to be finalized but noted discussions about that plan are ongoing.