Following the holiday break, Alberta broke a new record in documented, active COVID-19 cases.
Tuesday afternoon, Premier Jason Kenney said there were more than 34,000 active cases in the province, which he said was fueled by the Omicron variant.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said positivity rates between Dec. 31, 2021 and Jan. 3, 2022 had ranged from 28 to 36 per cent. New cases through those days ranged anywhere from 2,059 to 4,570.
The Calgary zone has had the highest positivity rates in recent days, hovering at around 40 per cent.
Hinshaw has previously said testing numbers don’t represent the entire provincial situation. This was due to a change in testing protocol to focus on health care and high-risk settings.
“As the numbers show, the Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly across the province, and this has been the case in other provinces,” she said Tuesday.
She also announced 12 new deaths had been reported since Dec. 28, 2021 — including a child between the age of five to nine with a “complex medical condition.”
“The presence of a medical condition does not take away from the grief or tragedy of this loss,” Hinshaw said.
Of those dozen new deaths, one person was in their 30s, one in their 40s, three in their 70s and six in their 80s. No other information about the deaths, including AHS zone and sex, were released by the province.
Hinshaw said there are currently 436 people in hospital and 61 of those people in ICU.
Provincial data shows hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have been trending up since a recent nadir on Dec. 25, 2021.
Pointing to jurisdictions outside Alberta, the premier said Omicron-fueled waves of cases appear to have a “relatively modest” impact on intensive care.
“I think where we can expect to see significant growth is in the non-intensive care part of the hospital system, and that’s something that we’ll be monitoring very closely as we go forward.”
Kenney said as of Jan. 3, nearly one in three adult Albertans had received booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to provincial data, booster doses have been administered to more than one million or just over 29 per cent of Albertans over the age of 18.
To date, 85.3 per cent of Albertans over 12 have received two doses, and 89.4 per cent have received one dose of the vaccine.
Hinshaw said people who have received two doses have good protection against severe illness from COVID-19, and people with boosters strengthens that protection while adding protection from infection.
“Omicron has arrived as a perfect storm of increased transmissibility, immune escape from both previous infection and two doses of vaccine, and enough early signs of reduced severity at an individual level to be tempting to not take seriously,” Hinshaw said.
‘Burnout and fatigue are very real’
Hinshaw pointed to what is happening in Ontario as a harbinger of what could come in Alberta.
“With case counts far exceeding anything we have ever seen before, the sheer volume of cases means that daily hospitalizations are beginning to escalate,” she explained.
“The population risk is high even as the individual risk is lower, and Ontario is only a little more than a week ahead of us.”
Hinshaw added each of the four waves of the pandemic preceding this one has taken a toll on healthcare workers in the province, saying it’s “critical” to care for the health-care system.
“Our actions now will make a substantial difference to the resilience and capacity of our health care system, not just in the next few weeks but in the long term, as burnout and fatigue are very real and will not be gone overnight.”
The chief medical officer of health added it is too soon to tell how record Omicron cases in Alberta will turn into hospital admissions and load on intensive care units.
Hinshaw also said it is too early to tell how the Omicron variant may affect children in the province.
“Because younger children are a disproportionately unvaccinated group… other countries have reported them making up a large proportion of cases,” Hinshaw said. “That’s not again been something that we’ve seen in Alberta to date.
“However, it is extremely early and too early to know exactly how this will unfold here.”
She said she continues to rely on the National Advisory Committee of Immunization’s recommendation on an eight-week interval between immunization doses for children.
Kenney laid out three things Albertans can do to protect themselves: get vaccinated, limit in-person contacts and take rapid tests “when appropriate.” He stopped short of announcing any new public health measures to stem the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, saying the cabinet committee meets Wednesday.
“We continue to monitor the situation very closely,” the premier said.
“As in the past, we regard restrictions as the last and limited resort, given the damaging effect that restrictions have on the broader health of society.”
Hinshaw said she would continue to provide recommendations to that committee.
The premier said his government is committed to students getting back into classes across the province on Jan. 10, as announced last week by Education Minister Adriana La Grange, and that was not on the cabinet committee agenda.
“The science is in now. We know that in-class transmission has not been a significant problem,” Kenney said at the Tuesday news conference.
Kenney also called on the federal government to approve Paxlovid, an oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19 that has been approved by the U.S. government.
The premier said his government is expecting hospitalizations to rise in the coming weeks, part of the reason why the province and AHS are doing “everything they can to prepare our health system for the impact of this wave” and said the Pfizer-made antiviral treatment can be a tool used in hospitals.
“We need to use every tool at our disposal and this can be a helpful tool for our physicians and frontline staff.”
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Alberta, agreed that Paxlovid could be “one tool in the toolbox,” if approved for use by Health Canada.
“It can be used if started early in the course of disease to prevent severe disease and so I think that certainly for those who are at high risk for more severe disease, it can be helpful,” Smith told Global News.
“What we need to understand, though, is that it’s not going to be appropriate for every patient and that there are a fair number of drug interactions that may make it not appropriate for certain immunocompromised patients.”