Alberta sees spike in Omicron cases of COVID-19 as AHS prepares health-care system for surge

Click to play video: 'Omicron cases spike in Alberta. What’s next?' Omicron cases spike in Alberta. What’s next?
WATCH ABOVE: A day after Alberta rolled out free COVID-19 antigen test kits, there was mounting frustration as supply ran low. As Chris Chacon explains, one pharmacist said people have been coming in to pick up not just one or two kits — but more like five to nine – Dec 20, 2021

Alberta released three days’ worth of COVID-19 data Monday, which saw the province identify 872 new cases of the Omicron variant of concern.

On Friday afternoon, the province had identified 173 cases of Omicron. As of Monday afternoon, that number had jumped to 1,045 cases.

Of the 1,045 total cases of the Omicron variant identified so far in Alberta, 613 have been identified in the Calgary zone, 367 are in the Edmonton zone, 35 are in the North zone, 20 are in the Central zone and 10 are in the South zone.

Read more: Omicron FAQ: Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 variant

In total, Alberta identified 1,925 new cases of COVID-19 over the last three days.

The number of active cases has risen from 4,431 cases Friday to 5,652 active cases Monday. The hospitalization rate remained stable over the weekend, with 324 people in hospital with COVID-19. Of those, 69 people are being treated in intensive care.

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Six additional deaths were reported to Alberta Health since Friday.

Two men in their 60s – one each in the Edmonton and Calgary zones – a man in his 80s in the North zone were among those reported dead over the weekend. The Central zone saw three deaths: a male in his 40s with no known pre-existing conditions, a female in her 70s and a male in his 90s.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. to ban indoor organized events, shut nightclubs, and keep home gatherings small

Alberta Health Services said it is currently completing an average of 8,000 COVID-19 tests per day, with results for most tests available within 24 hours.

A spokesperson for AHS said Monday that next day bookings for tests are currently available in the Edmonton and Calgary zones.

“Planning is underway to expand testing capacity to meet the potential increase in demand as cases of the Omicron variant continue to grow,” James Wood said.

AHS recently told all departments to review their emergency plans. Those plans could include contingencies for adding space for COVID-positive patients and the use of non-traditional spaces that are outside the walls of hospitals, like temporary structures.

Alberta Health Services making changes amid Omicron surge

In a statement Monday afternoon, Alberta Health Services said it is taking additional measures to limit COVID-19 transmission at acute and continuing care sites, “in light of the emergence of the Omicron variant.”

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Effective Wednesday, designated support persons and visitors who are close contacts of a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 will not be allowed inside continuing care or AHS acute care sites for 14 days from the date of last exposure.

AHS said the measure is temporary, and is intended to protect patients, residents and health-care providers.

AHS also said it is preparing the health-care system for an expected surge in positive cases, driven by the Omicron variant.

“While we are still learning about Omicron, we anticipate that it could begin to impact our health-care system quickly,” AHS said in a statement Monday.

Read more: Provinces break COVID-19 case records as new restrictions set in

AHS said it is currently maintaining ICU capacity above daily demand, and has the ability to increase to a planned maximum of 380 beds as long as it has the staff to do so.

During the peak of the fourth wave in Alberta, AHS said it had a total of 376 general adult ICU beds available, this included both patients with and without COVID-19.

“While we have reduced the number of surge ICU beds in recent weeks (allowing us to increase our surgical capacity), we have the ability to increase our ICU capacity should we need to again,” AHS said.

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“Unfortunately, increasing ICU capacity has an impact on other areas of the health-care system, particularly surgeries and other procedures. We will increase ICU capacity while carefully balancing the need to perform as many surgeries and other procedures as possible.”

Opposition calls for tightening of rules, updated modelling

Following the release of the weekend’s COVID-19 numbers, the official Opposition reiterated its call to roll-back the loosening of indoor private gatherings, including allowing unvaccinated individuals to gather with others outside their household.

NDP MLA David Shepherd pointed to “alarm bells” going off in other international and domestic jurisdictions who are seeing Omicron variant-fueled record increases in new COVID-19 cases.

“No other jurisdiction is doing that. In fact, other jurisdictions are bringing in more restrictions, (including) smaller groups. So we’d like to see the government reverse that decision,” Shepherd said Monday afternoon.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. to ban indoor organized events, shut nightclubs, and keep home gatherings small

“This UCP government, as always, is simply behind the wave and not in front of it.”

Shepherd wants the province to open up booster shots to all Albertans 18+ right now, and to release the latest provincial modeling of COVID-19 spread and the Omicron variant.

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The Alberta NDP health critic quoted the premier from November 2020, when Jason Kenney said “social gatherings are the biggest problem” and “the largest source of transmission” ahead of prohibiting indoors gatherings between households.

Click to play video: 'Frustrated Albertans scramble to find free COVID-19 antigen test kits following provincial rollout' Frustrated Albertans scramble to find free COVID-19 antigen test kits following provincial rollout
Frustrated Albertans scramble to find free COVID-19 antigen test kits following provincial rollout – Dec 18, 2021

“We know that Christmas is a time that is best shared with their families and friends, and we all want to be with our loved ones, but these are not normal times,” Shepherd said. “The loosening of restrictions flies in the face of what so many respected health experts have been advising Canadians on how to stay safe as Omicron spreads.

“And even Jason Kenney knows that.”

‘Great uptake’ for rapid COVID-19 test kits ahead of the holidays

The Alberta government distributed more than 157,000 rapid test kits on Friday, amid huge demand for the kits ahead of the holidays.

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On Friday morning, the province began offering free COVID-19 antigen test kits to Albertans at more than 700 Alberta Health Services sites and pharmacies across the province.

Each kit contains five rapid tests. The province said the initial rollout will see 500,000 test kits distributed across the province. Albertans are able to receive one kit every two weeks, as well as pick up a kit for someone else as long as they have their health-care number.

Read more: Albertans scramble to find free COVID-19 antigen test kits following provincial rollout

There were long lines at several sites Friday, with some Albertans reporting they were not able to get a kit, despite visiting multiple sites.

“There has been great uptake in the rapid test program,” Alberta Health spokesperson Laura Glover said in an email to Global News Monday morning.

“On Friday, more than 787,000 rapid tests (157,400 kits) were distributed across the province.”

The province said due to the nature of the program, it is not able to say how many kits were distributed from individual sites or communities.

Click to play video: 'Albertans line up to get their free rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits' Albertans line up to get their free rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits
Albertans line up to get their free rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits – Dec 17, 2021

Aliesha Robinson in Calgary hasn’t been able to get her hands on a pack of rapid tests yet.

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“I tried the other day but the lineup was really long, so I said, ‘Forget it, try another day.'”

She understands the tests are in high demand and plans to visit her local pharmacy again in the near future. Robinson said the tests are an added layer of safety so she can visit her mother.

“Just because my mom’s really sick right now with terminal cancer and I don’t want to chance it,” Robinson told Global News.

Glover said there are two million more rapid tests (400,000 kits) on hand that will be distributed in the coming days, and another one million additional tests (200,000 kits) set to be shipped later this month.

Glover said the province has requested another 4.3 million tests in December, and hopes to increase to 10 million tests a month starting in January.

“We’ll resupply and expand as fast as we can get supply from the federal government,” Glover said.

Read more: Rapid COVID-19 tests: When to take one, and what to do if it’s positive

Glover said test kits were shipped to all five Alberta Health Services zones, but noted there will be some variance in delivery and arrival time due to several factors, including weather and road conditions.

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The province has a list of sites on its website that are offering the test kits.

The province said it hopes to expand to more pharmacies province-wide in January, as supply allows.

The rollout of rapid antigen test kits was announced by Premier Jason Kenney last week, as the province also announced eased COVID-19 public health restrictions ahead of the holidays. The eased restrictions came as several other provinces announced additional public health measures amid a rise in Omicron cases of COVID-19 across Canada.

–with files from Adam Toy, Global News

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