Check against delivery.
Thank you, Tom, and good afternoon everyone.
Before I get to today’s COVID-19 update, I want to provide an overview of the unique influenza season that we’ve experienced in Alberta this year.
This year’s influenza immunization program has ended for the general public, except for children under the age of nine who have only received one dose of the vaccine. These children can get their second dose until the end of April.
This season has ended like no other, with zero reported cases of seasonal influenza in Alberta.
I know some may wonder if it’s because we didn’t test as much – but actually the opposite is true.
More than 122,000 respiratory swabs were tested specifically for influenza, compared to less than 47,000 at this time last year.
This was also a record-breaking year for the uptake of influenza vaccine.
More than 1.6 million doses were administered – the highest uptake we’ve seen in over 10 years.
We are not alone. Current data globally indicates that influenza activity has been lower than expected, with several countries reporting few to no influenza cases.
We know that public health restrictions currently in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as enhanced hygiene and physical distancing, have had an impact and provided protection against the spread of influenza.
This is a reminder of the power of our collective actions.
Through effective immunization and practicing good hygiene, physical distancing and staying home when sick, we have prevented the spread of influenza and other respiratory illnesses.
At the beginning of the season, we urged all Albertans to get the influenza vaccine and to do what they could to protect our healthcare system from also having to deal with the additional strain of influenza cases.
Together, we were successful in keeping influenza out of our hospitals, workplaces, schools and communities, and that is an incredible triumph.
I want to thank Albertans for getting immunized and for protecting each other from influenza, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.
This success reminds us that we can beat COVID-19 as well, if we work together.
Turning to today’s update, over the last 24 hours, we have identified 1,081 new cases of COVID-19, and completed about 12,000 tests.
Our positivity rate currently stands at 8.9%.
We have identified 705 additional cases of variants of concern in the last 24 hours. Variants currently represent about 52% of our active cases.
There are now active alerts or outbreaks in 453 schools, which represents 19% of all schools in the province.
A total of 2,653 cases have been linked to these schools since January 11th.
We are seeing a sharp rise cases in school-aged Albertans, as well as those in all other age groups.
While there are no risk-free options with COVID-19, the rise we have seen is not attributed to any single cause, and in fact, is often linked to social gatherings outside school rather than transmission within classrooms.
This reinforces the importance of following the measures in place, not only during school hours, but before and after them as well.
There are now 402 people in hospital being treated for COVID-19, including 88 in the ICU.
Hospitalizations are increasing provincewide, and cases continue to rise sharply.
My team is monitoring closely and, if we do not see growth slowing soon, further measures may be required.
Sadly, I must announce that 3 new deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.
My condolences go to the family, friends and loved ones of these individuals who are mourning their loss. And to anyone who is grieving a loss at this time.
I am pleased to report that we have now administered more than 900,000 doses of the vaccine in Alberta.
I want to encourage anyone who is eligible – all 1.7 million Albertans – to book your appointment as soon as possible.
There may be some questions about who can book appointments right now so I want to be clear that anyone 16 or older who has a medical condition like diabetes, COPD, severe asthma, heart disease, or any other conditions on the list available at alberta.ca is now eligible.
In addition, this week we have opened eligibility for all those who work in health care settings as part of the in-person care teams providing care in community clinics, acute care settings, and other health care locations.
Please check the website at alberta.ca to find out more about who is currently eligible and how employers can provide letters to their employees to verify their role at the workplace.
If you have already been immunized, thank you for making the choice to protect yourself and your community.
If you’ve tried and the pharmacy or clinic near you was full, please try again.
We are making more appointments available as more vaccines arrive.
I know there are still many others in Phase 2C who are patiently waiting their turn. We will open up to the rest of Phase 2C in the coming weeks.
Thank you for your patience and I can reassure you that your wait to choose protection for yourself and those around you is almost over.
Research shows that the first dose of Moderna or Pfizer vaccine offers a huge boost in immunity, with Canadian data indicating around 80% protection against infection after the first dose.
AstraZeneca’s first dose reduces infection by 60 to 70%, and importantly, hospitalization risk is reduced by about 80%.
The second dose for both of these vaccines increases protection even more, and is necessary to complete your series.
However, I also want to stress that vaccines do not mean that we simply stop caring about COVID-19.
These vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing severe illness and death. But it takes several weeks for your body to start developing immunity and, even then, it cannot offer 100% protection.
Looking at levels of transmission in our communities right now is like watching a flood rise higher and higher.
Vaccines are building a barrier against this flood to protect our communities from becoming overwhelmed,
But until everyone has had a chance to receive vaccine, we cannot dismantle the existing barrier of our collective actions to prevent spread, and this includes the same protective actions in those who are immunized.
With high levels of community transmission, the 5% of people who can still become infected after a second dose are still unfortunately able to expose those around them.
This is also the reason that we are looking closely at emerging evidence to determine the safest way to relax any restrictions in place at continuing care facilities and other high-risk settings,
And we are seeking input from residents, family, staff and operators to make changes based on their feedback.
That said, the very small risk of post-vaccine infection that could occur pales in comparison to the risk that comes without the vaccine.
These vaccines work, even against variants.
The evidence available indicates that all three vaccines that we currently have – Moderna, Pfizer and COVISHIELD/AstraZeneca – effectively stop the variant that’s most dominant in Alberta, the B.1.1.7.
Vaccines are our best defence, and once we have been able to offer them to all in the province, the current wall of protection created by public health measures can be replaced with this wall of protection that the vaccines give us.
I want to end today by saying that I know this last year has been a long road.
This pandemic has challenged all of us in many, many different ways.
It is natural to feel frustrated, anxious, and eager for the situation to change.
It is understandable to have different opinions about the measures in place, the responses we take and how to move forward.
But cases are rising.
We have no choice but to keep working together, and keep following the measures in place – even if you disagree with them – for a little while longer.
The recipe for getting safely to summer is simple: we need to reduce cases sharply by limiting in-person interactions as much as possible every day.
We need to stop the spread for just a few more months so that vaccines can do their work.
We are getting closer to this every day.
Thank you and I’m happy to take questions.