Alberta added 355 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as well as three additional fatalities.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said those 355 cases came from 6,018 tests — giving a provincial positivity rate of 5.9 per cent.
Of the 355 positives, Hinshaw said there were 62 variant cases — 61 of the U.K. variant and one of the South African variant.
“Thanks to the hard work of our labs, we are screening every positive case for variants of concern and now have a surge capacity of screening up to 1,000 samples per day if needed,” Hinshaw said.
She added that of the 4,776 active COVID-19 cases in the province, 509 — or 11 per cent — of them are variants.
“The toll that variants have taken on the U.K., Italy and other countries are a cautionary tale that we must continue to take very seriously,” Hinshaw said.
“Our aggressive screening, dedicated contact tracing and other measures have been buying time for the vaccines to work.
“In some ways, there is a race between the variants and the vaccines,” Alberta’s top doctor said.
There are currently 260 Albertans in hospital, 44 of whom are in intensive care.
Alberta in midst of Phase 2A of vaccine rollout
Hinshaw also noted that 379,882 vaccination doses have now been administered to Albertans.
In the provincial rollout, another age bracket opens up each day for vaccination signup. On Tuesday, the bookings were open to those born in 1948 or earlier, and for First Nations, Métis or Inuit people born in 1963 or earlier.
On Wednesday, three more birth years will be added: Albertans born in 1949, 1950 and 1951, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in the province who were born in 1964, 1965, and 1966.
Hinshaw said that the decision to add on three birth years Wednesday was made after Alberta Health Services did extensive testing on the booking system.
“(AHS has) been trialing and testing and they are confident that expanding to three additional birth cohorts can be managed by the system,” Hinshaw said.
“We know there are many Albertans that can benefit from the vaccine, and so we’re wanting to provide the opportunity for people to book as quickly as possible.”
In Alberta, Phase 2A also includes pharmacy bookings — which are now open for all age brackets (Albertans born between 1947 and 1956 and First Nations, Inuit and Métis born in 1971 or earlier) in the phase.
Previously, it was thought that vaccine was not as effective on older people. On Tuesday, Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said real-world evidence has demonstrated that the vaccine is safe and effective in older adults, particularly against severe illness from COVID-19 and hospitalization.
However, it added older adults should still be prioritized to receive mRNA vaccines — like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s.
AstraZeneca guidance will help protect vulnerable
Alberta offered the AstraZeneca to a younger group than the initial provincial rollout — to Albertans born between 1957 and 1961 (age 60 to 64) and First Nations people born between 1972 and 1976 (age 45 to 49).
On Sunday, the province closed online bookings due to low supplies of that vaccine.
Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, said that he believes this new guidance will help the province get the most vulnerable protected more quickly — but not until there are more doses delivered.
“Many of the vaccine doses in the province have already been booked and accounted for,” Jenne said. “But it means as we get additional AstraZeneca vaccine we can more rapidly deploy it again to those older patients, get them protected.”
“The same number of people are getting vaccinated — it just allows us to focus more of the vaccine in the highest risk group and then move to the next level of risk once we have additional vaccine in the province.”
He added that the change in recommendations came after positive studies of older people around the world who received the vaccine.
“We have the real world data,”Jenne said.
“If people over 65 were vaccinated, were they protected from hospitalization and death? The answer is a very clear resounding yes.”
However, epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan with the University of Ottawa said an important factor is that the new guidance says that older groups should more ideally receive mRNA vaccine.
Deonandan added that he believes the initial recommendation from NACI to not give AstraZeneca to older groups was premature.
“To have prematurely said that is not amenable for those under 65, was actively dismissing the real-life data that had already been published out of England and Scotland.”
As of Monday, Alberta had 4,811 active cases of COVID-19, as well as a total of 1,949 deaths connected to the disease.
Also Monday, the province added 364 new cases of COVID-19, including 65 variant cases.