Alberta has recorded its first cases of the P.1 variant, which was first discovered in Brazil, linked to community transmission in the province.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said two cases of the Brazil variant, which were reported Tuesday, were acquired in the community.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said health officials are following up with the cases to limit continued transmission. The first cases of the Brazil variant were reported in Alberta on March 14.
The information came as Alberta recorded 692 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday. Those cases came after about 12,800 tests were processed, putting the province’s positivity rate at about 5.3 per cent.
Of the new cases reported Wednesday, 202 were variant cases of concern. Hinshaw said variant cases now make up 19 per cent of all active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, a jump from nine per cent of all active cases two weeks ago.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of Alberta, said because the transmission rates and hospitalizations due to variants are relatively new, there is no old dataset to predict what the effect of the spread might be.
“If you are exposed to a variant, you are more likely to be infected. If you are infected, there really is a signal of increased severity, particularly in older people,” Saxinger said.
“There has been a fair number of hospitalizations for variant COVID already, so the most vulnerable individuals who have been vaccinated already are in a better position but then there’s a large number of people who are just in stages of vaccine rollout that would be susceptible to more severe infection.
“And we also know that if you do acquire variant infection, the risk of death is actually fairly considerably higher.”
Hinshaw said she is worried that over time, as spread continues, there could be an increase in the number of younger people in hospital.
“We have been seeing the variants rise since the beginning of February/end of January when we started screening all of our cases. We have known that with more infectious variants, as has been seen in various places around the world, that they do spread more rapidly and in a more widespread way than the currently dominant strain, the wild-type strain,” she said.
“I have been concerned from the beginning, but certainly what we are seeing right now is that tipping point in some locations where the variant cases are becoming close to equal with wildtype and we could see in the future that they become the dominant strain.”
Alberta’s top doctor also warned that in other places where variant strains have become dominant, additional restrictions have been implemented.
“We see in many countries in Europe, we saw in the U.K. earlier this year, that the variant strains rise very quickly and that in some cases, those additional restrictions have been needed to prevent further spread and to prevent that impact on hospitals and ICUs.”
Hinshaw said the next few weeks in Alberta “really are going to be a measure of how we all are collectively making choices, prioritizing our community, preventing that spread within the current public health measures.”
“If spread escalates, if we’re seeing the spread and the transmission in our cases — in particular variant cases — continuing to rise, it may be possible, it may be necessary to bring in additional restrictions.”
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi encouraged everyone to remain vigilant and clear-headed.
“The rules are important, but what’s even more important than the rules is the discipline with which we follow them. And so don’t worry about what’s allowed. Remember: clean hands, clear heads, open hearts.
“Clear heads means every decision you’re making right now should still be a decision that keeps you safe, keeps your family and your community safe. Every single decision you make right now should be one in the interests of public health. And we’ll get through this.”
Hinshaw also noted that Alberta Health is making changes to speed up the public reporting of variant cases. The province is moving to an automated system, which Hinshaw said will allow for quicker reporting of variant cases.
Hinshaw warned this will lead to a one-time combination of two days’ worth of variant cases being reported on Thursday, which will lead to a spike in the number of cases reported tomorrow.
Update on Alberta’s vaccination rollout and AstraZeneca safety
On Wednesday morning, the province announced a milestone had been reached when it comes to vaccinations. More than half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have now been administered in Alberta.
Hinshaw said more than 512,000 doses of vaccine have been administered to date. Health Minister Tyler Shandro said one in 10 Albertans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“Alberta’s vaccine rollout keeps getting bigger and better. More than 146,400 doses were administered during the last week, including more than 27,600 reported on March 21 alone,” Shandro said in a news release, reiterating that if supply keeps up every adult Albertan will be offered a vaccination by the end of June.
“We are all tired of the ‘new normal.’ Fortunately, with every single vaccine administered we are getting closer and closer to returning to normal.”
“When it’s your turn, please sign up for your shot, show up for your appointment and follow up with your second dose. Vaccines save lives, protect our health system and help us safely ease restrictions as soon as possible.”
Hinshaw said she is still hearing from Albertans who are worried about the safety of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. It comes after Health Canada announced Tuesday it will add a warning to the Canadian label on the vaccine because of the possible, though rare, risk of blood clots.
The European Medicines Agency added a similar warning last week after reports that 38 people developed blood clots, out of almost 20 million people who were vaccinated.
“Based on all the evidence available from trials and real-world experience over the past few months, Health Canada has found the vaccine is safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19,” Hinshaw stressed.
“The data also shows that there is no increase in the overall risk of blood clots for those who receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Having said that, Hinshaw also acknowledged “one particular outcome” that has been seen in higher frequency in some people who have received AstraZeneca vaccine. In a very small number of people who received the vaccine, in the two weeks afterward, a blood clot in the brain was reported.
“It is not clear yet if the vaccine caused this issue,” Hinshaw said. “This condition is treatable and very rare.
“Globally, this outcome has been reported in about one in one million doses, mainly in individuals under the age of 55.”
Hinshaw said it’s also important to note that COVID-19 infection significantly increases the risk of blood clots and other serious health issues.
“An unvaccinated person in Alberta between the ages of 20 and 49 has, on average, a 500 times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 after testing positive than having one of these rare types of blood clots after vaccination.”
Alberta received 58,500 doses of the CoviShield-AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month. Hinshaw said “to date, we have not seen reluctance” in people accepting the vaccine.
Hinshaw reminded Albertans that everyone in Phase 2A of the vaccine rollout is now eligible to book a vaccination appointment. She said anyone who has an appointment booked in April or later should call a participating pharmacy or 811 to book an earlier appointment.
“There will be an appointment available much sooner,” she said. “We are getting so close to the end of this pandemic thanks to vaccine.”
A date for the start of Phase 2B has not yet been determined.
Wednesday’s COVID-19 numbers
Two additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health over the past 24 hours. A man in his 70s in the Central zone linked to the outbreak at Red Deer Regional Hospital died. His case included comorbidities.
A man in his 60s in the Calgary zone also died. There are no known comorbidities with his case.
Alberta’s death toll from COVID-19 has now reached 1,973.
There were 285 people in hospital with COVID-19 Wednesday, 53 of whom were being treated in intensive care.
There were 6,534 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta Wednesday. Of those, 2,910 were in the Calgary zone, 1,455 were in the Edmonton zone, 788 were in the North zone, 784 were in the South zone, 581 were in the Central zone and 16 were not linked to any one particular zone.
A total of 143,547 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Alberta since the start of the pandemic. So far, 135,040 people have recovered.