The holiday season is in full swing and Christmas is less than three weeks away, but Alberta’s top doctor said officials are still considering what — if any — changes might be made to COVID-19 public health measures.
“I understand it’s hard to wait and people who want to make plans for the holidays — whether they celebrate Christmas, whether they’re currently celebrating Hanukah, there’s lots of different celebrations that are coming up — we do recognize it’s challenging for people to make plans in this bit of uncertainty,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said during an update Tuesday.
She explained the Omicron variant’s recent detection in Alberta, along with “plateauing” COVID-19 hospital and ICU rates are giving officials pause.
“It’s important to give ourselves time to look at the early trends of Omicron as well as looking closely at our own data,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said.
She pointed out Alberta’s ICU rate is still sitting “well above what we’d see at a peak of a typical influenza season.
“Even though our numbers have come down from their peak, when it comes to hospital and ICU capacity, we need to make sure we’re looking very closely at our system capacity, potential impacts if there were to be increased transmission from easing measures. And all of those things need to factor in as we look at the options.
“Decisions have not yet been made.”
Hinshaw couldn’t say when Albertans might expect to hear about any rule changes for the holidays.
“I’m not able to provide a timeline other than saying certainly I’m well aware that people really want to have this information to make plans.
“It’s important for people, whatever kinds of plans they’re contemplating making, to be thinking about all the things all of us have learned about COVID over the last 21 months in terms of the kinds of factors that will make a gathering as safe as possible.”
Hinshaw said provincial officials would tell Albertans as soon as any updates were available.
“I would ask people to hopefully have confidence that we’re looking at the options, that we know that restricting social gatherings does have an impact… the sense of isolation,” she explained.
“We also know that our acute care system has been under tremendous strain for a very long time now.
“We need to make sure that any changes that are made to our public health framework are taking into account the possibility of the combination of seasonal gatherings, the impact of seasonal transmission risks, the potential for some waning immunity — which is why we’re rolling out boosters — but that there could really be an impact from all these things coming together over the next month and we need to contemplate that as we try to weigh out all the risks and benefits of changing the rules for gatherings.”
On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney was also asked when Albertans would hear if any changes to public health guidelines would be made.
“We will be meeting both tomorrow and next Tuesday in the cabinet COVID committee to review the current state of the disease in the province and to consider some possible, relatively minor changes to the public health measures and guidelines,” he said.
Kenney said it appears things are going in the right direction, but also added the Omicron variant creates some uncertainty.
“We’re all concerned about the unknowns around the Omicron variant, more and more information is coming out about that,” he explained.
“Albertans have made a lot of sacrifices in the past three months to get the fourth wave under control and we have to be respectful of that. As people start to gather as families over Christmastime, I think we need to be mindful of the tolerance level of the public to continue to comply with come pretty strict measures that we have in place.
“You can have a hardcore lockdown on paper but if nobody observes the rules, it doesn’t matter at all.”
The current health guidelines only allow vaccinated Albertans to have indoor private social gatherings with a maximum of two households (yours plus another) up to a maximum of 10 people.
Unvaccinated Albertans are not permitted to have indoor social gatherings.
Outdoor private social gatherings are limited to a maximum of 20 people with two-metre physical distancing between households at all times.
On Tuesday, there were 373 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, including 76 being treated in ICU.
Five new deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours, Hinshaw said, bringing the death toll since the pandemic began to 3,268.
“Each death continues to be a sad reminder of the kind of impact this virus can have.”
Out of 5,500 tests in the last 24 hours, 240 new COVID-19 cases were identified.
Alberta’s positivity rate was 4.3 per cent Tuesday, Hinshaw said. There were 4,105 active cases province-wide.
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The province’s Omicron case count remained at 11 Tuesday.
“Given our current aggressive testing program, it is likely we’ll continue to detect more cases,” Hinshaw said Tuesday.
Of the 11 Omicron cases, seven were in fully vaccinated individuals, two were in partially vaccinated individuals and two were in unvaccinated individuals.
“We have seen some breakthrough infections in all variants in the past,” Hinshaw pointed out.
She stressed being fully vaccinated still offers significant protection against severe outcomes and having as many people immunized as possible is a “very important part of our community’s protection against the Omicron variant.”
Alberta has implemented changes for confirmed or suspected Omicron cases, Hinshaw said, referencing full contact tracing and close contact notification by Alberta Health Services.
“All of their close contacts would be notified by AHS. Those close contacts who are not fully immunized… would be strongly recommended to isolate for 14 days.
“The vast majority of Albertans do want to work with us to protect their communities,” she said.
Isolation is still mandatory — and legally required — for anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who test positive for COVID-19, Hinshaw stressed.
“Omicron is a variant of COVID-19; it is not a new disease.
“This is not the first time a variant of concern has emerged in Alberta and it won’t be the last.”
Still, Hinshaw said “based on all our previous experience and information about this variant,” she’s confident vaccines and “our tried and true measures” will continue to help protect Albertans and the health system.
One year ago, the provincial government announced a four-week lockdown.
On Dec. 8, 2020, Alberta Health identified 1,727 new cases of COVID-19 and there were 9,383 active cases in the Edmonton zone alone.
The first dose of vaccine was administered in Alberta on Dec. 15, 2020.
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Nearly a year later, on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, the Edmonton zone had 1,169 active cases and more than seven million doses of vaccine have been administered province-wide.
Since becoming eligible, more than 60,000 children ages five to 11 have received their first dose of vaccine, Hinshaw said.
As of Monday, all those aged 60 or older became eligible for a booster if it’s been six months since their second dose.