EDMONTON -- Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro says he believes it's safe to move forward with the province's staged reopening plan as COVID-19 case numbers trend downward.

Alberta reported 415 new infections in its latest update, a much-improved situation from late last year when there were some days with more than 1,800 new cases.

But Shandro acknowledges new, more contagious COVID-19 variants are worrisome and there is now a team of 50 experienced investigators dedicated to tracking them.

The next phase of Alberta's staged reopening plan could start as soon as March 1 and includes the potential easing of restrictions on banquet halls, indoor fitness and retail.

The threshold to get there is having fewer than 450 COVID-19 patients in hospital and there are currently 362.

Shandro says Alberta now has 2,300 contact tracers who are able to reach positive cases within a day and that in January alone they closed more than 21,000 files.

Of Alberta's 4,887 active cases, provincial health officials have been unable to pinpoint a source for 35 per cent - an improvement from late last year.

“We're still at risk, especially of the new variants. We have to continue to be careful,” Shandro said Thursday.

“But Albertans have shown that they can do what it takes to bend the curve and that's why I believe it's safe to move forward with our careful, staged reopening.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.