With 20 cases of the Delta COVID-19 variant now being linked to two outbreaks at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, Alberta doctors say the situation highlights the importance of providing second doses of vaccine — and fast.
As of Tuesday, four health-care workers and 16 patients on two separate units at the hospital were managing what Dr. Deena Hinshaw said were mild symptoms of the illness.
“It appears that all but one case are hospital-acquired, so cases were in hospital for other reasons before their infections,” Hinshaw said.
The Delta variant, first identified in India, is likely more transmissible than other strains, according to experts, but the most concerning thing that sets this variant apart is that it can escape the first dose of vaccine. But two doses provide roughly 90 per cent immunity against the strain.
“The Number 1 thing I think everybody can agree to is that we need to vaccinate the crap out of our population as fast as humanly possible with both doses.
“And we cannot stop,” said Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, general internist physician at the Peter Lougheed Centre and associate professor at the University of Calgary.
“And we need to be innovative and we… need to be much more agile.”
Fabreau said each variant of COVID-19 is “fitter” than the last, meaning it “gains an evolutionary advantage in these mutations compared to its predecessor.”
‘Not surprising’ to have spread in hospital
According to Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, it’s “not surprising” the Delta variant spread within a hospital, because of the low vaccine efficacy in combatting its transmission.
“Many people may only have one dose of vaccine and so they don’t have as robust protection,” Smith said.
She agreed that second doses are needed “as fast as possible,” but also stressed that even those who have one dose of vaccine need to be vigilant in monitoring for symptoms, especially during spring and summer with the onset of allergy season.
“They may be covered, (but) we still need to go and get tested if we have (allergy) symptoms,” she said.
“I think, certainly when people have had one dose of vaccine, then there’s a bit of a sigh of relief that they feel that they have some protection, which is true. But again, with this variant, the less protection than we’d like… a lot of people may mistake those mild COVID symptoms for allergy.
“And so I do think that people have to be cognizant that you can still get COVID even if you’ve been partially vaccinated.”
As of Tuesday, there were 75,000 open vaccine appointments in Alberta, and 195,000 over the next two weeks, according to Alberta Health Services.
When asked about whether Alberta would accelerate the rollout of second doses, Hinshaw said officials were looking at the possibility, but as of Tuesday, no changes had been made to open more availability.
Hospital still safe for patients
Both physicians and Hinshaw stressed that the Foothills Medical Centre is still a safe place to visit for health care, and anyone needing medical attention should not avoid going there.
“I think in a hospital setting, it’s really a fairly closed setting in many ways. And so we actually have the ability to really get a pretty good handle on how many people are infected,” Smith said.
“We do have the ability in the hospital to be able to identify new cases very quickly and to isolate them and do all those mitigation steps to prevent spread, even more so than you would in the community, where there’s a lot of a lot of moving pieces.”
Hinshaw said in the case of these two outbreaks, officials “can see that with the implementation of aggressive control measures, promptly, spread is stopped.”
She stressed that anyone seeking medical attention should disclose any COVID-19 symptoms, or a confirmed infection, to health-care workers so they can ensure the safety of themselves and others.
“When we identify the infectious case and put those measures in place, there is no further spread,” Hinshaw said.
“And unfortunately, if there is an index case where the infectiousness isn’t promptly identified, then we do still need to be cautious and careful, particularly in settings of high risk like acute care and like continuing care.”
Fabreau said when it comes to outbreaks in hospitals, there’s a delicate balance between ensuring the severity of the situation is portrayed to the public, and maintaining the hospitals are safe.
“We never, ever want our patients to be harmed when they come to our hospital. We absolutely want people to feel safe in our hospitals,” he said.
“At the same time, we need to acknowledge that Delta is here and we need to speed up (our response).”
— With files from Lauren Pullen, Global News