Alberta resumes testing all positive COVID-19 cases for variants as concern grows over B.1.617

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Alberta ramps up screening for COVID-19 variants amid rising concern over B.1.617 cases
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta Health says all positive COVID-19 cases in the province will be screened for variants again starting this week. The news comes as medical professionals raise concerns about the B.1.617 variant, which is already here in Alberta, and the need for second-dose protection. – May 31, 2021

Alberta will be getting a clearer picture of COVID-19 variant case numbers and spread as the province is once again going to be testing all positive cases for variants of concern.

The province had to press pause on screening all cases May 1 as labs simply didn’t have the capacity to keep up once the number of new cases started topping 2,000 cases a day.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said the province “will start screening all confirmed cases starting this week.”

The development is welcome news as concern is rising both in Alberta and around the world about the B.1.617 variant first identified in India.

The first confirmed case involving the B.1.617 variant in Alberta was publicly reported on April 22. Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said it was an Albertan returning from interprovincial travel.

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As of May 31, there were 42 reported cases — 33 of them in the Calgary zone — but concerns have been voiced by several medical professionals the case numbers could be higher.

“I’m not sure we have a complete picture about how many cases we have in our province,” said Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta.

Previously, Alberta labs didn’t have the ability to rapidly screen this particular variant, but that has now changed.

“Alberta’s labs have developed a way to screen PCR tests for the B.1.617 variant,” McMillan said.

“While this variant is concerning, we are also seeing (daily) cases decline sharply, which is positive and increases our ability to identify cases and act quickly to prevent broader transmission, while continuing to vaccinate as many people as possible.”

Concern with one dose vaccine protection against B.1.617

Recent data collected by Public Health England (PHE) found one dose of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines is only 33 per cent effective protecting against B.1.617.

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PHE says that data shows that protection level increases to 88 per cent with two doses of Pfizer, and 60 per cent with two doses of AstraZeneca.

“This virus will take advantage of us,” said Dr. Darren Markland, an ICU physician in Edmonton. “It’s not done until both (doses of) vaccine are in and your immune response is completely constituted at two weeks.

“It will be an issue for those can’t get vaccinated or don’t want to.”

Alberta will enter Stage 1 of the government’s “Open for Summer” plan on Tuesday and has already reached the benchmarks to move ahead with Stage 2 as early as June 10.

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Second doses aren’t a benchmark for the reopening plan, but Hinshaw said Thursday they are still very important.

“Let me be clear, second doses are essential and are an integral part of the plan,” she said.

Premier Jason Kenney tweeted on Monday that “an important announcement” about second doses would be made on Tuesday.

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