'Very concerning': Alberta reports first case of COVID-19 variant without travel exposure
EDMONTON -- Alberta is expanding its capacity to test for COVID-19 variants as those cases tick up and officials believe one of the new strains was spread in the community.
Twenty cases of the variant first found in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) and five cases of the variant first identified in South Africa (501Y-V2) had been confirmed in the province as of Monday.
All of the cases have been linked to international travel – except one case of the B.1.1.7 variant, Alberta's health minister and chief medical officer announced that afternoon.
"This means that it may have entered the broader community. So let me be blunt: This, now, is very concerning," Minister Tyler Shandro commented.
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Evidence suggests the strains are between 30 and 50 per cent more infectious, but can still be targeted with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines Canada has been distributing.
However, Shandro said, the variants have the potential to drastically bump up infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Alberta.
In response, the lab system is working to run full genetic sequencing on 400 samples per week, up from about 150, by next week. Full genetic sequencing allows the labs to look for any genetic differences.
The labs are also increasing rapid screening capacity to 300 samples per day within a week. The testing identifies specific mutations, like the B.1.1.7 and 501Y-V2 variants.
And, effective immediately, those who come into Canada at Alberta's border crossing will no longer be able to leave isolation after a first negative test. Instead, they will be ordered to quarantine until testing negative a second time. All of the tests conducted in the border pilot program will be tested for the variations found first in the U.K. and South Africa.
Although there has been protest of the government's restrictions on businesses, Shandro called the emerging strains a "serious threat and complicating factor when it comes to relaxing restrictions."
He said without any public health measures, if the variants were to spread freely, Alberta's cases and hospitalizations could triple within six to eight weeks. In a projection where Alberta started with 250 total cases – and, again, no public health orders – daily case counts could rise to more than 10,000 within six weeks and hospitalizations could increase to 3,600 within eight weeks.
"We are closely monitoring for the U.K. and South African variants here in the province and are watching spread that is happening in other jurisdictions," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
"If additional steps are required to prevent the spread of variants in Alberta, we will take action to do so."
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The top doctor reported 362 new cases on Monday, found in 7,200 tests performed the previous day.
Alberta's positivity rate sits at five per cent.
Twenty-five more deaths were linked to COVID-19. Since March 2020, 1,574 Albertans with the disease have died.
There are 637 people in hospitals across the province, 113 of whom are in ICUs.
Across Alberta, 259 schools are on active alerts and nine are managing an outbreak. Together, they account for about 500 cases in the province, and 11 per cent of all schools.
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As of Sunday, nearly 99,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered. In total, more than 9,870 Albertans have been fully immunized with two doses.
The province's vaccine progress and ability to prepare for any spread of the variants depends on Canada receiving steady supply from Pfizer and Moderna, the health minister said.
"Just over two per cent of Canadians have now been vaccinated. Meanwhile, the U.S. has given a shot to more than six per cent of their population. If we compare ourselves to the United Kingdom, more than 10 per cent, and Israel more than 40 per cent of the population has been vaccinated," Shandro commented.
"Alberta has the capacity to deliver about 50,000 doses per week… It simply depends on our supply. We need more doses now, and we need them more urgently due to the increased threat posed by the new variants."