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.
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.
According to infectious disease expert Dr. Craig Jenne, that means that for every person who gets sick, they go on to infect another person.
“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.”
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.
Jenne said the higher R value can be partly attributed to new outbreaks of COVID-19 at workplaces, particularly meat-packing facilities.
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.
Another factor in the increased transmission is COVID-fatigue, according to chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.View link »