Advertisement

COVID-19: Rural Alberta’s R value is increasing. What does that mean for cases and risk?

Click to play video 'Defiance of restrictions linked to COVID-19 surge in rural Alberta' Defiance of restrictions linked to COVID-19 surge in rural Alberta
WATCH: Defiance of restrictions linked to COVID-19 surge in rural Alberta – Feb 10, 2021

As COVID-19 cases in Alberta continue to trend down, outside the province’s major cities, the rate of spread in the community is on the rise.

In the week of Jan. 18 to 24, the R value (or rate of transmission) was 0.77, compared to 0.81 and 0.83 in Edmonton and Calgary respectively.

Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta’s R value dips below 1, but ‘a plateau is not enough’

One week later, the R value for rural Alberta had jumped to 0.9 and as of the week of Feb. 1 to 7, the rate of transmission was at 0.96.

Click to play video 'Rising COVID-19 R value causes concern in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan' Rising COVID-19 R value causes concern in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan
Rising COVID-19 R value causes concern in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan

According to infectious disease expert Dr. Craig Jenne, that means that for every person who gets sick, they go on to infect another person.

Story continues below advertisement

“The virus will sustain itself in the community at those levels,” he said.

“We need to get that number significantly below one if we want to start to see the number of viral cases shrink and the risk of transmission to go down in the community.”

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

Transmission is highest in central and southern Alberta, with the R value actually being above one in the southern portion of the province, according to biostatistician Ryan Imgrud.

“When you see a reproductive value above one, you need to act on it,” Imgrud said, adding case numbers will grow, possibly doubling, over the next month.

Click to play video 'Alberta’s R value dipping below 1 is encouraging ‘but not enough’: Hinshaw' Alberta’s R value dipping below 1 is encouraging ‘but not enough’: Hinshaw
Alberta’s R value dipping below 1 is encouraging ‘but not enough’: Hinshaw – Dec 14, 2020

Jenne said the higher R value can be partly attributed to new outbreaks of COVID-19 at workplaces, particularly meat-packing facilities.

Story continues below advertisement

However, he said that just because that’s where the cases are being detected now, it doesn’t mean the illness won’t easily spread into the community.

“I don’t think the viral transmission is limited to the workplace,” Jenne said.

“And the evidence for that is when we had a large outbreak earlier in 2020, in the High River area, we saw that those workplace infections did lead to community-level transmission in areas such as High River.”

At its height, the April COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill meat plant in High River saw 350 staff infected with the disease.

Click to play video 'Hinshaw reminds rural Albertans they are not immune to COVID-19 as R-value rises' Hinshaw reminds rural Albertans they are not immune to COVID-19 as R-value rises
Hinshaw reminds rural Albertans they are not immune to COVID-19 as R-value rises – Feb 10, 2021

Read more: Class-action lawsuit alleges meat packer failed to take coronavirus precautions in Alberta

Another factor in the increased transmission is COVID-fatigue, according to chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Story continues below advertisement

“I know that sometimes people who live in areas of the province that are less densely populated may feel that COVID-19 is not a threat, but this is a really good reminder that COVID-19 spreads everywhere in our province, and that none of us are protected from it unless we are taking the proper precautions that we’ve talked about so many times,” she said Wednesday.

“This is the time to remind ourselves that no matter where we live in the province, we have to continue to follow the COVID-19 restrictions so we can continue reducing our case numbers which will enable us to start to be able to open up more of the activities that we want to see.”

University of Calgary public health researcher Dr. Sajjad Fazel also said misinformation could be playing into rural populations’ reluctance to follow public health guidelines.

He said every day, more misinformation about the reality and severity of COVID-19 are circulating, as well as conspiracy theories and false statements from people in positions of authority or influence.

“All these things together make someone have distrust in the system and that reduces their chances of actually following recommendations,” he said.

Read more: COVID-19 variants leave less ‘room for error’ in loosening restrictions: experts

In an emailed statement, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the R value “only looks at the rate of spread over a period of time — in this case, one week,” adding there can be significant changes from week to week.

Story continues below advertisement

“The current R rate in Alberta outside of Edmonton and Calgary is not due to any one factor or outbreak,” McMillan said.

“Rather, it reflects that COVID-19 is not just a Calgary or Edmonton problem – it is a provincial problem within the context of a global problem.”

Click to play video 'New study links buffets and socializing to COVID-19 spread at Edmonton bonspiel' New study links buffets and socializing to COVID-19 spread at Edmonton bonspiel
New study links buffets and socializing to COVID-19 spread at Edmonton bonspiel – Feb 9, 2021

Meantime, Hinshaw said health officials are watching the increasing numbers and  working with local public health to identify specific trends and determine if any interventions may be needed to slow the transmission.