1,558 COVID-19 cases reported in Alberta as province sets new mask exemption rules
EDMONTON -- New mask exemption rules were revealed by the province’s top doctor on Thursday as the province reported 1,558 cases of COVID-19.
In a live update, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Dr. Deena Hinshaw and CEO of Alberta Health Services (AHS) Dr. Verna Yiu revealed the rise in COVID-19 cases and provided an update on contract tracing efforts during the third wave of the pandemic.
Hinshaw said starting Thursday, people qualifying for exemptions from mandatory mask wearing will need a letter from a medical official on their person to help prevent people from finding “loopholes” for not wearing masks.
After completing nearly 15,300 tests the provincial positivity rate is now 10.6 per cent.
There are now 722 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 177 in ICU.
On Wednesday, a new pandemic high for ICU admissions was set and hospitalizations rose to 737.Nearly two million vaccine doses were administered across Alberta as of last count.
Nine new COVID-19 deaths were reported Thursday: three people in their 70s, three in their 80s and 90s, one person in their 40s, and two people in their 50s to 60s.
Hinshaw said while the number of cases reported daily has not exceeded over 2,000 cases since the start of May, the peak of the third wave may not have occurred yet.
“Our positivity rates remain high and have been 10 per cent or greater for some time now,” Hinshaw said.
“It is a little early to say that we are definitely past the peak,” she added. “We are just watching closely and I think we are in a time of hopefully turning the corner… that this indeed is behind us.
“We simply don’t know with certainty what the summer will look like yet.”
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More than two million people have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the province.
“The response has been excellent,” Hinshaw said. “Your decision (to get vaccinated) will make a difference in our collective fight against COVID-19.”
NEW RULES FOR MANDATORY MASKS TO MAKE ENFORCEMENT EASIER: HINSHAW
During the update, Hinshaw said anyone who qualifies for an exemption from complying with manadory mask regulations will now need a letter from a health official certifying their exemption.
Exemptions can include if a person is unable to put on a mask independently or if there is an occupational risk for wearing a mask.
Hinshaw also said that medical exemptions from mask wearing are now clarified and are only a limited to certain disorders or health conditions.
“To help prevent spread and make sure that people are masking appropriately we are clarifying what these health issues are,” she added.
Some of these include sensory processing disorders, mental health disorders, allergies to mask ingredients, or recent oral or facial surgeries.
Hinshaw said there have discussions for “a while” about this measure and that frontline medical staff have been raising concerns about mask rule adherence.
She added that some people have been seeking loopholes in the mask regulations and that has provided challenges to law enforcement responses.
“With the feedback we have received about how we can make our public health orders more enforceable, this is one of the things that we have heard will help support our frontline enforcement teams.”
CONTACT TRACING UPDATE
Yiu provided an update on contact tracing and said that upon receiving confirmation of a positive test, AHS contact tracers’ follow-up and investigate all COVID-19 cases in the province.
“This has been happening since January 9,” Yiu said.
“Our priority has been and continues to be contacting and completing initial case investigations with all new COVID-19 cases.”
She said initial case investigators have reached 80 per cent of positive COVID-19 patients by a phone call within 12 to 24 hours during the past seven days.
On Tuesday, contact tracers closed 1,800 cases.
The second priority for investigators is reaching out to close contacts, Yiu said.
In April, contact tracers stopped calling close contacts to inform them of a positive case due to rising numbers of infections.
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Yiu asked Albertans who have tested positive for COVID-19 to inform their employers.
According to Yiu, only if multiple infections occur at a worksite will AHS contact tracers investigate.
“We continue to prioritize high-risk work places for investigations like continuing care, prisons, manufacturing facilities, and food processing plants.
“Contact tracing in Alberta is a partnership,” Yiu said. “It is a shared responsibility between Albertans.
“We must all work in partnership to keep focus on early and timely notification of close contacts.”
Yiu said there are currently 2,550 contact tracers, with more being on-boarded and hired as needed.
She added that the current number of people available to investigate COVID-19 cases is 50 times the original number of contact tracers available at the start of the pandemic.
“We are constantly looking for recruitment and making sure that we have enough people on staff to be able to adapt and adjust,” Yiu said.
HINSHAW SAYS VACCINE HESITANCY CAMPAIGNS TO COME
In response to a question about high levels of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Alberta, Hinshaw said a public awareness campaign including advertisements are coming, further analysis is being conducted to ensure vaccine hesitancy is addressed.
For Hinshaw, the term vaccine hesitancy is broad and may include different degrees of motivation of being vaccinated.
“What we are doing right now is working with our teams to look at best current evidence on dealing with different aspects of what people might need to feel comfortable to receive vaccines,” she added.
That includes providing information about vaccine protection benefits or working on logistics to ensure accessibility barriers to receiving vaccines are addressed through outreach clinics.
“There is no-one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “We need to make sure we are thinking about how people want to receive information and services and providing that across the province.”