The day after the Alberta government announced “very modest” loosening of COVID-19-related gathering rules at the start of the holiday season, Health Minister Jason Copping says Alberta Health is watching developments around the Omicron variant “very carefully.”
“We know it can spread quite quickly, but there’s still questions to be answered in regards to the level of severity,” Copping told Global News. “But we also know that the safest path forward is vaccination and our focus is increasing vaccination through the boosters and an expanded rapid testing as well.”
On Wednesday, Albertans over 50 and all health-care workers were made eligible to get booster shots. Emerging science suggests boosters significantly improve resistance to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Copping said the age-gated approach to booster shots is based on matching the vaccine supply the province has and the six-month wait period advised by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
But that wait period could soon be shortened.
“We are also having a conversation with (chief medical officer of health) Dr. Hinshaw about today in terms of the efficacy of changing that rule from six months,” Copping said Thursday. “But really, at this point in time, we are matching our rollout to the supply that we have on hand and we are putting shots in arms as quickly as possible.”
Earlier Thursday, Opposition health critic David Shepherd called on the province to expand the booster shot program.
“Other provinces have found a way to do this, including right next door in Saskatchewan,” Shepherd said in a statement. “If our premier believes that Albertans must wait six months for their booster shots, it is incumbent on him to explain why our medical advice is so different from everywhere else.”
The NDP MLA also called for personal gathering restrictions of unvaccinated people to be reinstated before the holidays.
“Albertans can no longer trust this government to lead us out of this pandemic when every decision they make is more about politics than public health,” Shepherd said.
Copping said the changes to indoor private gatherings – allowing unvaccinated individuals, removing limits on the number of households and removing children under 18 from the 10-person maximum – brought Alberta’s measures closer in line with other provinces, calling them “some of the strictest health measures in the entire country right now.”
“We’ve done very little changes since the fourth wave. They have been working against Delta,” Copping said.
On Thursday, the province announced 473 new COVID-19 cases had been detected in the past day.
Omicron cases detected through genetic sequencing jumped in the province to 119 from 60 in the past 24 hours as well. The Calgary zone represented the highest count, with 82 Omicron cases.
The Alberta NDP are also calling on the province to release Omicron modelling and daily updates from Dr. Hinshaw.
Copping said despite the concerns about the highly-transmissible variant that is sweeping through Ontario, Quebec and some European countries, a balance was needed during the holiday season.
“We recognize that we need to strike a balance between the risks – people need to have social contact – with the risk of catching COVID,” the health minister said. “We made some minor, very minor changes given the concerns with Omicron, where we simply don’t know yet in terms of the impact it could have on our health-care systems.”
As of Wednesday, intensive care units across the province were running at 107 per cent of baseline capacity, continuing a downward trend since late October.
But Copping recognized that even if Omicron results in less severe disease in those who catch it, the high exponential transmissibility can still produce a higher number of patients that need hospitalization. This week, the province announced AHS will be expanding capacity in hospitals.
Copping said it’s important for Albertans to protect each other and the health-care system.
“We need to be cautious in regards to Omicron and I can assure Albertans that we’ll be watching the numbers very closely,” the health minister said. “And if we need to put in place new measures, we will put in place measures.”