Alberta’s chief medical officer of health announced Tuesday that data shows the province’s COVID-19 situation continues to improve considerably but reiterated that when virtually all health restrictions are lifted — something that could happen as early as next month — people will need to be mindful that the novel coronavirus is still here.
“The best thing that all of us can do (once restrictions are lifted), is make sure we’re accessing the protection that vaccine offers us and thinking through — as we make our travel plans — how we can mitigate risk,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference in Edmonton.
“This summer is going to continue to be a time of us in a transition between responding to the significant threat that COVID-19 has posed into a time where we have a level of protection that allows us to manage that risk… as we do with many other risks in our lives.”
Alberta’s latest reopening plan is more ambitious than ever, a strategy guided by increased access to COVID-19 vaccine supply. The province has already entered Stage one of the three-stage plan. Unless hospitalizations spike dramatically before Thursday, the province will relax more rules as it enters Stage 2.
By the end of the month, if 70 per cent of Albertans 12 and older have been partially immunized against COVID-19 and hospitalizations don’t exceed thresholds set out by the province, Stage 3 will begin, which will see all public health restrictions lifted.
Hinshaw was asked Tuesday about whether there was any concern the province was planning to reopen too swiftly by lifting all restrictions, including the requirement that people wear masks.
“Looking forward and considering what would happen post-Stage 3, I want to make sure people understand that the shift we’re needing to make is looking at how we can learn from how we’ve protected each other during this pandemic and taking those lessons learned forward,” she said.
“So the absence of legal requirements doesn’t mean that we stop protecting each other. We still need to be courteous and respect each other’s needs and that could mean masking in certain settings, even if it’s not legally required.”
When asked about whether the Delta variant of COVID-19, otherwise known as B.1.617.2, presents a new risk, Hinshaw said the province is aggressively tracking its spread, and to date, there are still relatively few cases of that variant in Alberta.
It has been in the province since April 8. She said since then, 193 cases have been identified in Alberta, including 16 cases currently linked to outbreaks at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.
“This variant is emerging around the world,” Hinshaw said. “We need to watch its spread, as we do all COVID(-19) cases. However, I also want to put our numbers in context. Of all the variants of concern identified last week, only five per cent of them were the B.1.617.
“It is still a very small proportion of our cases. Research is still emerging for the variant with respect to vaccine effectiveness. Current evidence seems to show that first doses are somewhat less effective.
“(However,) they still appear to provide some protection, and the good news is that two doses are virtually as effective against B.1.617 as any other strain. This underlines the importance of the rollout of our second doses.”
Hinshaw added that she believes Alberta has “one of the most aggressive variant-testing strategies” in Canada, now that the province has resumed testing all positive COVID-19 cases for variants. She added that Alberta is also aggressively contact tracing any time a case of the Delta variant is detected.
“Albertans can help by getting vaccinated,” she said.
“If you’re eligible for a second dose, don’t wait.”
U.K. experience with Delta variant
Researchers say evidence suggests the Delta variant is 40 per cent more transmissible than other varieties.
In the U.K., which was able to execute its vaccine rollout plan early and on a wide scale, the health secretary said this week the Delta variant may delay his government’s plans to lift most remaining public health restrictions by June 21.
On Sunday, Matt Hancock said he wouldn’t rule out continuing to require face masks in public settings and asking people to keep working from home where possible.
Over 12,400 cases of the Delta variant have been confirmed so far in the U.K. On Friday, the U.K. recorded 6,238 new coronavirus cases, its highest number since late March.
“I think it really highlights the importance of watching for emerging issues,” Hinshaw said of the situation in the U.K., “but also being mindful of the shift all of us are going to need to go through in the coming months.
“We have been very used to watching cases with an automatic translation of cases into acute care and severe outcomes… (but) the vaccine does two things… It prevents transmission, but the other thing it does is those who get infected are less likely to go on to have severe outcomes.”
Hinshaw noted that while case numbers are going up in the U.K., that country is not seeing a corresponding spike in severe outcomes.
“That’s a shift that we’re all going to need to be moving into… making sure that we’re thinking not just about cases but also what those cases lead to,” she said.
“Because we know that restrictions, public health measures have health consequences of their own. We know that the measures have significantly impacted many Albertans, and we need to be mindful of balancing all of the different health impacts of the measures as well as COVID-19 as we make our plans going forward.
“I think we can learn from the U.K., but we need to learn not just by being concerned by cases alone but (also) watching how as their situation unfolds, how that informs our focus on increasing vaccination rates in areas where maybe there’s not been the same kind of uptake, as well as making sure that we’re not just reacting to cases but reacting to the outcomes of cases.”
Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
Hinshaw said Tuesday that the province has now administered about 3.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. She noted that 67 per cent of all Albertans 12 and older have received at least one dose while 15 per cent have received two doses.
She added that Alberta has recorded 139 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours after 3,400 tests were conducted in the same time frame. The province’s positivity rate currently stands at 4.2 per cent. Alberta’s R-value last week was at 0.74.
“These are great numbers,” Hinshaw said, adding that Alberta currently has its lowest number of total active COVID-19 cases since March 9.
“Leading indicators continue to trend downward.”
She noted there are still 336 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, with 85 of them in intensive care units.
Alberta Health announced Tuesday that the province has recorded three more coronavirus deaths.
The people who died were a man in his 40s from the Calgary zone who had no known comorbidities, a man in his 60s in the Central zone who had comorbidities and a man in his 60s in the North zone who had comorbidities.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of these Albertans as they mourn their loss,” Hinshaw said of the latest fatalities. “These deaths remind us of the risk COVID-19 continues to pose in Alberta.”
–With files from The Associated Press
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