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50% of eligible Albertans have 1st COVID-19 vaccine dose; concerns about school return remain

On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said over 50 per cent of Albertans over 12 had received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

More than 2.24 million doses of vaccine have been administered so far.

“This is a significant feat and something we should all be proud of,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, during her update on Tuesday afternoon.

Click to play video: 'Over half of eligible Albertans have received first dose of COVID-19 vaccine' Over half of eligible Albertans have received first dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Over half of eligible Albertans have received first dose of COVID-19 vaccine – May 18, 2021

She said it’s a sign that “things are getting better.”

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However, she stressed Alberta still has a way to go. Active COVID-19 case numbers are still high across the province and more than two million Albertans have not been vaccinated.

Hinshaw explained the reason provinces and countries are pushing for a large percentage of the population to be vaccinated.

She says Alberta is targeting a “high level of population coverage… to prevent the virus from spreading widely in the community.

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw explains the importance of high vaccination rate in fighting COVID-19' Hinshaw explains the importance of high vaccination rate in fighting COVID-19
Hinshaw explains the importance of high vaccination rate in fighting COVID-19 – May 18, 2021

“I’ve talked before about trying to build a wall of protection against sort of a flood of the virus… We still have very high transmission rates, still have very high positivity.

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“If you think of the public health measures as the the current wall to prevent the virus from flooding into our communities, as we build up that vaccine protection, it needs to be at a high enough level to get to a point where the public health measures can be taken away, and that vaccine protection will provide the defense against that flood coming in and spreading widely and overwhelming the acute care system and again, trying to use the vaccination coverage to protect people not only from the illness but most importantly from those severe outcomes.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta identifies 877 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday' Alberta identifies 877 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday
Alberta identifies 877 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday – May 18, 2021

Hinshaw said 877 new COVID-19 cases were identified in the last 24 hours and 8,100 tests completed, putting Alberta’s positivity rate at 11.4 per cent.

She explained that, despite lower daily case numbers, positivity rates have remained at a high level for weeks. To compare, Hinshaw said Alberta’s positivity rate this time last year was just 1.5 per cent.

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Fewer tests were completed over the last several days than usual. Hinshaw said, typically, fewer people seek tests on the weekend than on weekdays and weather can also play a role in testing volume.

Read more: Interactive map breaks down COVID-19 vaccination rate by Alberta community

Returning to in-person school

Schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Tuesday, May 25.

The ministry of education told Global News: “We are confident students will return back to their classrooms to finish the school year.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta government expects safe return to K-12 classroom learning next week' Alberta government expects safe return to K-12 classroom learning next week
Alberta government expects safe return to K-12 classroom learning next week – May 18, 2021

However, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has concerns.

“Students, staff and schools need to be better protected from the risks associated with COVID-19,” ATA president Jason Schilling said.

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“We are concerned that schools will reopen on May 25 using the exact same strategy that has already failed twice to keep schools safe and open.

“The variants of concern have changed how COVID is spread and its impacts on schools, yet the government has not changed its plan for how to protect students and to operate schools safely.

“Teachers are exhausted trying to mitigate spread and trying to sustain student learning while flipping back and forth between in-person and online delivery.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s top doctor doesn’t believe there is public health risk to sending students back to school' Alberta’s top doctor doesn’t believe there is public health risk to sending students back to school
Alberta’s top doctor doesn’t believe there is public health risk to sending students back to school – May 18, 2021

Hinshaw was asked about the return to in-person school on Tuesday and said schools have never been a significant driver of higher COVID-19 rates; rather a reflection of community transmission.

She said the move to at-home learning was an “operational decision” and one made to staffing and isolation challenges. The return to in-class learning – and which grades make the move – would be decided by the ministry of education and those same operational factors.

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“I don’t believe there to be a public health risk in bringing children back to school,” she said, adding she’s “absolutely” comfortable sending her own children back to school on May 25.

The decision about whether to allow children’s activities, sports and recreation would be made “independently” of the back-to-school decision, Hinshaw said Tuesday.

Click to play video: 'Hinshaw says ‘schools have been.. one of the safest places’ during COVID-19' Hinshaw says ‘schools have been.. one of the safest places’ during COVID-19
Hinshaw says ‘schools have been.. one of the safest places’ during COVID-19 – May 18, 2021

 

She said that back in January, Alberta had relatively high community transmission rates and new daily case numbers were also quite high. At that time, shifting students back to in-person learning was the first step taken after restrictions were put in place in December.

“With that shift back to in-person learning — while keeping other activities restricted to limit transmission — we saw absolutely no inflection in case counts,” Hinshaw said.

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“With all the restrictions in place, and with public health measures in place to limit potential of transmission in schools, we have already seen this back-to-school transition work very well even in a time of relatively high transmission rates, and that was prior to the opportunity to have many of the older students and teachers and staff receive vaccine for protection.

“So, at this point in time… with community transmission beginning to see a decline, with immunizations on the rise, and with other restrictions in place to limit transmission of COVID-19, schools have been, in this last year, one of the safest places for children to be.”

Hinshaw said there are measures in place to minimize transmission in schools including mask requirements, cohorting, regular symptom screening and other PPE. She said vaccines being offered to anyone 12 and older has offered an additional layer of protection.

Daily COVID-19 numbers

As of Tuesday, there were 691 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 187 in ICU.

Read more: 3rd COVID-19 wave bringing ‘the most ICU patients that we’ve ever seen in our health-care system:’ Alberta Health Services

Four additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours, all of which included comorbidities.

A man in his 50s in the Central zone, a man in his 50s and a man in his 60s from the North zone and a woman in her 70s from the South zone all died.

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Click to play video: 'Calls for new COVID-19 modeling project as variants in Alberta surge' Calls for new COVID-19 modeling project as variants in Alberta surge
Calls for new COVID-19 modeling project as variants in Alberta surge – Mar 24, 2021

R value trends

For the first time since early February, the reproductive values — or R value — of the virus are below one across the province.

As of May 10 to 16, the R value in Alberta was 0.84, while the Edmonton zone stood at 0.86, Calgary zone stood at 0.82 and the rest of Alberta was at 0.85.

Click to play video: 'Alberta government looking to address regions with low vaccination rates' Alberta government looking to address regions with low vaccination rates
Alberta government looking to address regions with low vaccination rates – May 18, 2021

Compare this to the week of March 29 to April 5, when the R value for Alberta was at 1.17, Edmonton zone was at 1.18, Calgary zone was at 1.17 and the rest of Alberta was at 1.13.

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Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiology professor at the University of Calgary, said she is cautiously optimistic but she has some words of caution.

“We’re still seeing high case counts in terms of positivity numbers and even the raw number of cases is still quite high and far above where we want it to be,” she said.

Fiest said R values of below one means the province is hopefully not seeing exponential spread anymore but the doesn’t mean people should let their guard down.

“It doesn’t mean COVID isn’t spreading throughout the community however. People still need to follow all the guidelines and be really aware of the potential for spread, even if they do have a single dose of vaccine or if they’re not vaccinated at all,” Fiest said.

— With files from Julia Wong, Global News

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