Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Wednesday that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the province.
“As of March 21, approximately 60 per cent of positive cases are BA.2, so it is now the dominant strain of Omicron in the province,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw explained.
She said Alberta continues to screen all PCR tests for variants of concern.
BA.2 is more transmissible, Hinshaw said, but doesn’t appear to be causing more severe disease in other jurisdictions than the first Omicron variant BA.1.
“While this is good news, we only have to look back to the fifth wave to see that a virus that is more transmissible can cause a large impact at a population level, even if the risk of severe outcomes are the same or lower for individuals.
“We should expect to see transmission trending upwards in the coming weeks.”
Alberta’s top doctor said that means those at risk of severe outcomes should revisit their precautionary measures and everyone should get all their vaccine doses.
“A booster now will provide important added protection in the coming months.”
Wednesday’s news conference marked the first weekly COVID-19 update. Alberta is moving to weekly in-person media availabilities and weekly updates of the online pandemic data.
Wednesday’s update included statistics from Friday to Monday.
Hinshaw said there are currently 956 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 56 of whom are being treated in ICUs.
She said, on average, there were five COVID-related deaths a day in Alberta since Friday. The people who died were between 54 and 94 years old.
“This infection is still a significant threat to many of us, our family and our friends,” Hinshaw said.
The leading metric for Alberta health officials, Hinshaw said, was the positivity rate.
Alberta’s positivity rate ranged between 20.6 per cent to 27.1 per cent Friday to Monday, putting the average positivity rate at 23 per cent.
Hinshaw said it’s hard to say how many active COVID-19 cases there are in the province since eligibility for PCR tests was restricted. When that change took place Dec. 23, 2021, she estimated it would be about 10 times the number of positive cases identified by the labs. On Wednesday, she said it’s likely that ratio has changed.
“It will quite certainly be a greater gap than one in 10 but it’s difficult to say.”
Hinshaw said serology results – that will be available in about one month – will provide a bit more information on active case numbers.
Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said there are signs of hope, but that COVID-19 is still here and the health system is still under significant strain.
“We continue to see the impact is less than it has been in the past,” he said. “Hospitalizations due to COVID continue to drop, slowly but surely.”
Copping said COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals have also fallen since the peak in mid-February, when there were 38 acute care facilities with active outbreaks. Now, he said, there are just 11.
Alberta is back up to “nearly normal” surgery volumes, according to Copping, sitting at 96 per cent of total capacity.
Still, the surgical waitlist is “too long,” at about 76,000.
“This health system has gone through an unprecedented global crisis,” Copping said, adding that the Alberta government is returning to its work to reduce surgical wait times.
He highlighted the Alberta Surgical Initiative and said more information would be released in the coming weeks.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Hinshaw addressed the question of fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses in Alberta.
She said currently, only immunocompromised people aged 12 and older are eligible for a fourth shot.
“At this time, there has been no timeline set for expanding fourth doses to the general public,” Hinshaw wrote online. “The National Advisory Council on Immunization has not made a recommendation to expand fourth dose eligibility beyond the current eligible group.”
Quebec announced Wednesday it will start offering fourth shots to certain groups amid an uptick in pandemic indicators, the interim director of public health said.
Dr. Luc Boileau said the booster will be made available for seniors who are 80 years and older, as well as to Quebecers who live in long-term care homes.
Hinshaw said Wednesday that the question of fourth vaccine dose eligibility has been brought to the Alberta advisory committee on several occasions and, at this time, it’s aligning with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and only recommending fourth doses for those with significant immunocompromising conditions.
She added that Canada enacted a longer interval between doses than other countries did, which has been shown to provide higher protection against the virus.
Hinshaw stressed Albertans need to stay home when they feel unwell and can access free rapid tests at pharmacies.
“With rapid tests, if you are feeling sick, it’s important to take two tests 24 hours apart if the first is negative.”
She also emphasized that even if your tests are negative, you should stay home until you’re feeling better.
“Our actions also have far-reaching impacts on those we don’t know.”