Premier Jason Kenney and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced new measures Monday to buy Alberta time to learn more about Omicron, a newly discovered COVID-19 variant, that both say is almost certain to arrive in the province at some point.
“Initial evidence suggests that this variant has an increased number of mutations,” Kenney said at a news conference, adding that Omicron also appears at this point to be possibly more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.
Hinshaw said while no cases involving Omicron have been detected in Alberta to date, that is “very likely” to change.
Earlier in the day, the World Health Organization said it deems the global risk from Omicron to be “very high” based on initial evidence. The variant was first identified a few days ago by researchers in South Africa and has since been detected in several countries around the world.
Canada identified its first cases of the Omicron variant over the weekend in Ontario.
On Monday morning, that province’s top doctor confirmed the two travellers identified as the county’s first cases of the variant first entered Canada through Montreal before continuing on to Ottawa.
The Alberta government said it plans to test all COVID-19 cases not identified as Delta cases for the Omicron variant and those efforts will prioritize cases involving travellers.
Kenney added that 156 travellers have arrived in Alberta in the last two weeks from countries of concern with regard to the new variant and all have been reached out to in an effort to quickly address any potential new COVID-19 cases.
The government said anyone returning to Alberta from an international destination who tests positive for COVID-19 will be subject to a more extensive case investigation and heightened contract tracing efforts. PCR tests will be recommended for close contacts and household contacts.
Kenney noted he was pleased to see the federal government introduce a temporary travel ban on people coming from countries of concern with regard to the new variant but added: “More must be done.”
Kenney, Hinshaw and Health Minister Jason Copping all said the most effective way for Albertans to protect themselves and others against the Omicron variant is to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Kenney noted vaccines have proven to be effective against different variants, even if the medical community is still learning about Omicron.
“While this news is, I know, frustrating for us all, Omicron should not cause us to despair,” the premier said. “We have reason to believe that we can overcome the challenges ahead.”
Hinshaw also tried to reassure Albertans, noting “we know a lot more about COVID(-19) now than we did before.”
“This knowledge means we are not going back to step zero.”
Hinshaw added that while people are understandably concerned, “returning travellers should be treated with compassion.”
She added that if any COVID-19 symptoms develop among returning travellers, they will be considered a probable case and close contacts will be reached out to at that point.
Hinshaw reminded Albertans that isolation remains mandatory for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and the isolation must be 10 days from the onset of symptoms, regardless of the variant or strain.
When asked if Albertans should prepare to face a fifth wave of COVID-19, Kenney, suggested that would be a reasonable expectation.
“Yes, I think we can expect future waves,” he said, noting the important thing is to ensure Alberta mitigates any chance of those waves threatening the stability of the province’s health-care system.
Hinshaw said she believes everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19 now as she believes it’s only “a question of time” in terms of when people will be exposed to the novel coronavirus.
“I believe everyone at some point will be exposed to COVID-19,” she said. “Take advantage of this time now where cases are relatively low to get that protection.
“While there’s lots that we don’t know about (Omicron)… It does seem that it could be outcompeting the Delta variant.”
Kenney said the province’s primary goal is to prevent a “catastrophic outcome” in terms of COVID-19’s impact on the health-care system. He said the province was announcing new measures in the wake of the detection of the Omicron variant elsewhere, but added that he does not think it is “helpful at this point to assume the worst about Omicron.”
Kenney said in addition to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the best way Albertans can help protect the province from Omicron is to follow all existing public health rules.
NDP proposes steps for Alberta’s COVID-19 response
Before Kenney, Hinshaw and Copping addressed reporters Monday afternoon, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley outlined the NDP’s proposals to prepare Alberta for Omicron.
“Experts are saying with or without travel bans, we’re going to see that virus in Alberta, if it’s not already here,” Notley said.
“We all know that Jason Kenney and his UCP cabinet failed to act when the danger of the fourth wave and the new variant was obvious. As this new potential threat emerges, Jason Kenney just can’t repeat these failures again.”
The NDP’s recommendations include the establishment of an independent science table — like Ontario has — to advise provincial health decisions.
“Critical decisions will have to be made and they must be underpinned with high levels of public trust. Unfortunately, this UCP government has lost that trust,” Notley said Monday.
“If the UCP is going to be asking people to change their behaviour or make sacrifices yet again, we need complete transparency. We need to know that these decisions are being made in the best interest of public health, not UCP politics. We need to see the modelling, we need to see the advice, we need to see the recommendations. Albertans deserve to see all the options and the science behind them without the distortion of politics.”
The NDP also proposed creating a risk index: a description of conditions that would trigger public health changes.
“Acting last and least with no notice is a failed approach,” the NDP leader said.
The Opposition is also proposing in-school vaccination programs, giving parents three hours of time off to help get their children immunized, paid sick leave and full resumption of contact tracing in schools and daycares.
“I hope the premier will support these ideas,” Notley said.
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Hinshaw reported Monday that 806 new cases of COVID-19 were identified in Alberta over the weekend (325 on Nov. 26, 253 on Nov. 27 and 228 on Nov. 28), bringing the total number of active coronavirus cases in the province to 4,850. The province’s positivity rate is at 4.6 per cent.
The Calgary zone has more active COVID-19 cases than any other region in the province ( 1,847), followed by the Edmonton zone (1,146), the North zone (831), the Central zone (664) and the South zone (358). There are four active cases not currently linked to any particular zone.
Alberta Health reported Monday that the total number of people who have died from COVID-19 in the province has risen to 3,242, up seven from Friday.
On Monday afternoon, there were 432 people in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19 with 77 of those being treated in intensive care units. Those numbers were lower than on Friday when there were 455 COVID-19 patients in Alberta hospitals with 90 of those in ICUs.
When asked if there are any plans to loosen or tighten public health restrictions for the approaching holiday season, Kenney said his government would be “speaking to that at some point in the near future.”
He said a key target of his government’s right now is to help get the number of Albertans receiving ICU treatment for any reason to at least below 173, which is the province’s baseline ICU capacity.
Kenney added that another consideration about public health rules going forward is to ensure that they are rules people will actually follow.
–With files from Caley Ramsay, Emily Mertz, Global News, Jamey Keaten, Raf Casert, Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press
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