In the face of rapidly-escalating COVID-19 cases in Alberta, the chief medical officer and premier are urging Albertans to cut their personal contacts by at least half. Capacity limits for large events were announced, effective Christmas Eve.
“In general, reducing contact with others is one of the most important actions we can take, in addition to vaccination to help protect the health of others in our community throughout the pandemic,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Tuesday afternoon.
Hinshaw said the Omicron COVID-19 variant is now the dominant variant, representing more than half of new cases. She added any new COVID-19 cases can assume they have the Omicron variant.
“In the next few weeks, we will see transmission rise to heights we have never seen before. We don’t know what that will do to our health-care system.”
In the last 24 hours, 786 new COVID-19 cases were found in the province, representing an 11 per cent positivity rate. Cases of the Omicron variant in the province totalled 1,609 on Tuesday, up from 1,045 the day before.
Hospitalizations rose to 329 and 69 people were in ICU. Active cases jumped to 6,045 in the province.
Two new deaths were announced, bringing the pandemic total to 3,294. A man in the Edmonton zone and a woman in the Calgary zone — both in their 70s — were the deaths reported in the past day.
Omicron cases have been exponentially rising in the province, the premier said. He noted that from Dec. 3 to 9, one per cent of new cases were the new variant. However, the variant made up 22 per cent of cases between Dec. 10 and 16, and 52 per cent of cases between Dec. 16 and 18.
“Given the rapidly increasing volumes of Omicron cases, we have redirected all our contact tracing capacity to high-risk settings at this point,” Hinshaw said. “As of last weekend, all new cases not linked to settings like continuing care, acute care and other congregate sites have been asked to notify their own contacts.”
The move mirrors what other provinces have done to prioritize resources.
Businesses compliant with the Restrictions Exemption Program that serve food will have limits of 10 people per table and alcohol service must end at 11 p.m., followed by the closure of restaurants, pubs and bars at 12:30 a.m.
As of Christmas Eve, venues with capacities over 1,000 had their limits cut in half. Venues with space between 500 to 1,000 had their capacities limited to 500. Those venues will no longer be allowed to serve food or drink to help keep masks on attendees.
Kenney said the capacity limits will help prevent super-spreader events, adding daily decisions in the coming days will help prevent the spread of the highly-contagious variant.
“It’s important to remember that small, everyday actions can have an important impact as well,” Kenney said. “And that is why we are appealing to Albertans to reduce their number of daily in-person contacts by half over the coming weeks.”
The Opposition panned the changes to event and business restrictions, as the government didn’t reverse the previous loosening that allows unvaccinated individuals at indoor personal gatherings, given the threat Omicron presents to people who haven’t received any doses.
“When it comes to the restrictions, especially the ones that were loosened just last week, this premier continues to be way off course,” NDP MLA David Shepherd said. “Jason Kenney and his UCP government are gambling with the lives and livelihoods of Albertans by refusing to reverse their reckless decision to give their blessing to unvaccinated Albertans to gather indoors.”
Shepherd, the Opposition’s health care critic, also called for restrictions similar to British Columbia’s to protect the health care system.
Dr. Neeja Bakshi, a COVID-19 ward physician and divisional director for general internal medicine at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, said staff shortages have the province’s hospitals “teetering on a tight rope.”
“Every hospital, every division, every department is doing the necessary (things) that they need to do to make sure that over the next few weeks we have the staff, we have the capacity to be able to help manage these patients,” Bakshi said. “But to be very, very blunt, whether it’s physically, emotionally, mentally, we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have the physicians and nurses to be able to manage what the predictions show.”
Hinshaw said now is the time to have conversations with friends and family to find ways to gather that will mitigate the spread of an airborne disease, like gathering virtually or outdoors.
“I want to be clear that I believe this situation is so serious that my family has cancelled our holiday plans.”
She said the evidence it’s clear that “part of the reason that Omicron is more transmissible is that long-range transmission is happening more often through aerosol dispersion.”
The chief medical officer pointed to Alberta Health guidance to use high-quality, well-fitted masks.
“The summary is that those with risk factors for severe outcomes are strongly recommended to wear medical masks whenever they’re in settings with those outside their own household. Using N95 masks is also an option.”
Dr. Hinshaw said cloth masks could provide protection “as long as they are well fitting and have multiple layers with at least one of those layers providing good filtration.”
The Calgary Chamber of Commerce was disappointed the new restrictions on businesses didn’t come with any indication of support.
“At a time when small businesses have already taken on considerable debt in the last 22 months, the current environment will make it harder for businesses to cover operational costs, attract and retain skilled talent and deal with rising costs associated with supply chain challenges,” Chamber president and CEO Deborah Yedlin said in a statement.
“Expanding the eligibility criteria for the federal government’s Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program and structuring supports to be stackable are two measures that can be taken to further support businesses through this next wave.”
Boosting immunity in Albertans
Premier Jason Kenney stressed the importance of booster shots on the same day the province opened up boosters to all Albertans over 18 who received their second dose at least five months ago.
Kenney said the province “will move heaven and earth” to administer boosters as quickly as possible.
Health Minister Jason Copping said about three-quarters of Albertans who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be eligible for their third dose by the end of the month, representing 1.55 million people.
As of Monday, 649,557 Albertans had received a booster shot and just more than 3.2 million had received a second dose.
Kenney and Copping also announced the province is moving ahead to privately procure 10 million rapid testing kits outside of what is being made available by the federal government.
They said two million more tests are being shipped to some of the 700 sites across the province on top of the already-shipped 2.5 million tests that were announced on Dec. 15.
“A negative (rapid) test does not mean you’re guaranteed not to have COVID, so please don’t use a rapid test as a reason to take extra risk and (not) to follow the rules,” Copping warned. “But they are a good tool.
“They give each of us a new way to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.”