Check against delivery.
Thank you, Tom, and good afternoon everyone.
We have now administered more than 779,000 doses of vaccine in the province.
I want to remind anyone with a health condition listed in Phase 2B that booking is now open for all birth years.
There are spots available, so please contact Alberta Health Services or your pharmacy today.
Please don’t wait to be called, but reach out for an appointment.
If you’re unsure whether your medical condition is included, please check the list on alberta.ca or follow up with your doctor.
Also, starting tomorrow morning, Albertans between the ages of 55 and 64 can book appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine through Alberta Health Services.
Doses of this vaccine will be available at clinics in Edmonton and Calgary. You can also book at participating pharmacies offering this vaccine.
Over the last 24 hours, we have identified 1,429 new cases of COVID-19, and completed about 15,000 tests.
Our positivity rate currently stands at 9.4%.
There are now active alerts or outbreaks in 414 schools, which represents 17% of all schools in the province.
There are now 340 people in hospital being treated for COVID-19, including 83 in the ICU.
Sadly, three new deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
It might be tempting to forget that each of these numbers is a person, but we cannot let ourselves become numb to these statistics.
My sympathies go to all those in hospital, in ICU, and the loved ones of those who have died, as well as anyone who is mourning a death from any cause right now in these difficult times.
Today, I want to talk about variants.
We have identified 717 additional cases of variants of concern in the last 24 hours. Variants currently represent about 45% of our active cases.
I know that many Albertans feel information overload about variants.
And others have many questions: like how contagious variants are, whether vaccines will work and what we can do to limit onward transmission.
To date, three variant strains have been detected in Alberta that have us concerned:
- the B.1.1.7 variant, first reported in the UK
- the B.1.351 variant, first reported in South Africa
- and the P.1 variant, first identified in Brazil
These variants are still new. But what we know from current evidence is that these three variants of concern are more transmissible than the earlier form of the virus.
The B.1.1.7 seems to be about 50% more transmissible, and P1 seems to be closer to twice as infectious.
Each of these variants of concern also have some unique properties.
The B.1.1.7 variant seems to be able to cause more severe illness that our original strain.
At this point, it’s not clear if the other two variants also have increased severity, or if some of the severe outcomes being reported in countries where they are the dominant strain are due to the high burden of disease because of how infectious they are.
One of the biggest questions is how well our vaccines protect against these new variants of concern.
The good news is that all three vaccines we currently have available are effective at stopping the variant that’s most dominant in Alberta, the B.1.1.7. Evidence is less clear right now about the other two.
Vaccines seem to have a somewhat lower effectiveness against infection with the B.1.351 variant, although they still may provide protection against severe outcomes.
For P.1, evidence is mixed and it isn’t clear whether there will be a vaccine effectiveness impact.
Our knowledge and understanding is rapidly evolving, and we’ll know a lot more in the time to come.
That’s one reason we’re keeping measures in place right now, even for people who have gotten a vaccine.
So, if variant cases are more infectious and maybe even deadlier, what are we doing to slow the spread?
First, we implemented the health measures announced on Tuesday.
These variants spread by being in close range of someone who is infectious, particularly indoors, just like all other COVID-19 strains, which means that the fewer in-person interactions we have, the less chance they have to spread.
Our labs also continue rising to the challenge.
Despite rising cases, we continue to screen every positive COVID test for variants of concern.
Early on, Alberta Health Services formed a dedicated contact tracing team to address variant cases – putting its most experienced and knowledgeable contact tracers to work limiting spread.
These steps are a big part of why we were able to slow the growth of variants over the last few months.
However, we have now reached the point where variants of concern are the dominant strains of new COVID-19 cases in our province.
By far, the most common is the UK variant, or B.1.1.7, which makes up 99% of all of our variant cases confirmed to date.
We have now reached the point that, if you test positive, you should assume that you have the UK variant.
Because of this, we are now focusing the efforts of our specialized variant contract tracing team on the P.1 and B.1.351 variants, and we will be treating cases and contacts of B.1.1.7 and the original COVID strain the same going forward.
With that in mind, effective today, we will begin offering testing twice to close contacts of all confirmed cases, regardless of what kind of COVID strain they may have been exposed to.
If you are a close contact, you will be offered testing as soon as you are notified, and if you test negative, offered testing again 10 days after your last exposure.
By testing all close contacts twice, we have a better chance at quickly identifying new cases and stopping their spread.
Effective immediately, we are also aligning our isolation requirements for original COVID and B.1.1.7 cases.
We will continue to strongly encourage all new COVID cases to isolate away from other household members in isolation hotels or other appropriate separate accommodation.
However, for original and B.1.1.7 variant cases, if a case has a separate bedroom and separate bathroom, and remains completely separated from the rest of their household for their infectious period, we will consider the 14-day quarantine period for household contacts to begin on the last day of contact with the case.
If the case cannot isolate in a separate space from the rest of the household, and for all P.1 and B.1.351 variant cases, we will continue to consider household contacts to be continuously exposed during the infectious period if a case remains in the same house, even if they have a separate bathroom and bedroom.
To be clear, the quarantine period of 14 days after the last exposure to an infectious case remains the same – it is just the home isolation approach that is a little bit different.
I recognize this puts an additional burden on Albertans – especially for parents and guardians of children who can’t isolate away from their infectious or exposed child.
That’s why supports, including hotels, are available for anyone who needs help isolating away from where they live or quarantining away from an infectious case.
Details about this program are on alberta.ca and available by calling 211.
Along with these stricter measures, there is a small bit of good news.
Last month, I signed an order requiring extra testing and aggressive measures for all variant outbreaks in continuing care facilities.
Thanks to vaccines, we have seen that these additional measures are not necessary in sites with high vaccine coverage.
As a result, I am rescinding that order so that tough outbreak protocols will be implemented only when local medical officers of health deem it necessary.
This pandemic has been hard on residents in these facilities, and this is a small step to avoid making it any harder than necessary.
Finally, I know that many people wonder what they can do to stop the spread of these variants.
The answer is not new, but it is more important than ever: Limit your time in contact with other people, especially indoors.
The new restrictions announced last Tuesday will bend the curve, even for variant strains, if we all pull together.
We all need to follow them, and the old advice we have heard so many times is still true: by washing our hands, wearing a mask, staying physically distanced from those outside our household, and staying home when sick, we can stop the spread of COVID.
When wearing a mask, make sure it fits well and snugly around your mouth and nose.
Double masking is one way to ensure a snug fit, but there are other ways as well to ensure that masks provide the best protection. For example, make sure that reusable masks have at least three layers with one of them a non-woven material.
If you need to wear a mask for a full day, ensure that you change it after several hours of continuous use, and if it becomes dirty or saturated.
Always clean your hands before putting on a mask, and before and after removing it.
The most important thing that we can do is to be vaccinated as soon as we are eligible.
The best way to limit the long-term spread of these variants and all COVID-19 is to book our vaccine as soon as we are eligible.
While research is still ongoing to understand how vaccine effectiveness may differ with variants, we know that every vaccine provides more protection than no vaccine at all.
That’s because these vaccines elicit a broad immune response, so changes or mutations in the virus are not likely to make vaccines not work at all.
These vaccines are also easily adapted, and the manufacturers have already begun testing and adapting vaccines to improve future doses, specifically for variants of concern.
All of this means that, by getting immunized and reducing spread, we can win this fight. We can protect each other.
The variants are an unfortunate reality, but we have the tools to stop them.
We can see the end of the tunnel getting closer, so let’s all work together to get through this as safely as possible.
Thank you and I’m happy to take questions.