Alberta’s premier said public health restrictions could be lifted in four to six weeks, provided two major factors continue to show progress: COVID-19 vaccination rates and declining cases.
Alberta’s daily case counts and total active cases have been steadily decreasing in recent days, however, Premier Jason Kenney said officials are still concerned about the high numbers.
“We are at a historic high peak of intensive care admissions right now, and that’s why we must continue to be cautious,” he said
“Having said that, we are making — the numbers are moving in the right direction in terms of the leading indicators of new cases and total active cases… So we’ve seen a very encouraging decline in active cases and the rate of transmission.”
Alberta reported 908 new COVID-19 infections Wednesday, after labs completed roughly 10,400 tests, putting the province’s positivity rate at 9.1 per cent.
A total of 685 people were being treated in hospital for COVID-19, with 185 patients admitted to intensive care units.
Kenney said the emergency management committee of cabinet is expected to meet after the long weekend to talk about how to move forward, and he expects a formal announcement “about a week from now.”
He said while there’s “a ways to go” in terms of reducing the stress on the health-care system, both the good progress on numbers as well as the success of the vaccine program mean positive change could be on the horizon.
“If we continue to see the COVID numbers come down and the vaccine numbers continue to go up, we will be in a good position a month or six weeks from now to move towards a significant opening of Alberta and relaxation of public health measures to have a great summer,” Kenney said.
“But whether and when we get there will be entirely dependent on how Albertans respond over the next few weeks. They respond by limiting social interaction wherever possible and (by) getting vaccinated.”
More than 2.27 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered as of Wednesday, with more than 50 per cent of eligible Albertans having received their first dose. Kenney said the province was also leading the country in administering second doses.
According to Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the most important factors in having health measures eased by summer are reducing transmission rates and, in turn, hospitalizations, as well as vaccination rates getting to a point where a significant portion of the population has some form of immunity.
“If we are able to reduce our transmission of COVID-19 and thereby reduce the pressure on our acute care system — if we’re seeing our hospital and ICU numbers coming down — and we’re seeing our immunization rates rise to where we believe, again, that we would have that protection for the community… I believe that we will be able to have a summer with many fewer restrictions,” she said.
She urged Albertans to robustly follow the current restrictions in the coming weeks and sign up for their shot when they’re eligible.
Hinshaw said the news Wednesday that Pfizer vaccines can now be stored in a fridge for up to a month will help with the province’s rollout in rural areas where vaccines previously couldn’t be used because of storage and transport limitations.
The province has already worked with other vaccines, Moderna and AstraZeneca, to overcome the logistical challenges Pfizer faced but welcomes more flexibility with the third option.
“Now that we have the extra time, I think we’ll be able to leverage that work that we’ve already done to have a good distribution system and create more opportunities to get both types of vaccine into places in rural Alberta where it may have been challenging to offer Pfizer before,” Hinshaw said.
Changes to continuing care restrictions
Hinshaw also announced a number of changes to the restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in continuing care facilities.
Effective May 31, residents will no longer be required to quarantine when admitted to a facility or after returning from same-day or overnight outings.
All residents will undergo a health assessment upon admission or return, Hinshaw said. Precautions for those who pass the assessment will be based upon the vaccination status of the individual.
Those who are fully vaccinated will require no additional precautions, while partially and unvaccinated people will need to provide twice-daily symptom checks for 14 days.
Regardless of vaccination status, there are still certain circumstances where quarantine may be necessary if people don’t pass the health screening.
Individuals will still need to quarantine if they are returning from international travel, are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 or if they have symptoms.
Quarantine will also be required if returning from a unit at a health-care facility that is under outbreak.
“While there continues to be a small risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19, a number of safety precautions continue to be in place to ensure continued protection of residents and staff in these facilities,” said Hinshaw, pointing to those screenings as well as policies around masking, distancing and hand hygiene.
The revised standards shift to a “vaccine-based approach” and were developed with stakeholders and after hearing from more than 2,500 Albertans through town halls over the last few months.
“This is a small step forward but a reminder that we are making progress and that if we continue on this course, we will be able to safely get back to normal,” Hinshaw said.
Anyone with questions is encouraged to contact their continuing care facility directly, though Hinshaw asked for patience as those people work to implement these changes.
Six additional deaths linked to COVID-19 infections were reported on Wednesday. All cases included comorbidities.
Three people in the Edmonton zone died: a man in his 60s, a woman in her 60s and a woman in her 70s. A woman in her 60s in the South zone died, as well as a woman in her 60s in the North zone. A man in his 50s in the Central zone also died.
— With files from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED