COVID-19 Updates: Protecting Albertans from the Omicron variant.
Check against delivery.
Thank you, Dr Yiu, and good afternoon everyone.
Before I begin, I want to provide an update on an adjustment to our COVID-19 protocols currently in place.
Based on feedback and discussions of relative risks of different activities, we will be amending current restrictions to allow drive-in events to take place effective today.
Anyone attending these events must attend only with members of their household in the same vehicle, or two close contacts for those who live alone.
Turning to my update, we will be posting our usual daily update online later this afternoon.
While I usually share high-level figures and we post detailed data online, I know it can sometimes be hard to put all the pieces together.
We’re all suffering from information overload, and after 14 months there is a lot of misinformation circulating out there.
Today, I want to look at what the data says about some common myths around COVID-19.
It will be a little numbers-heavy, but sometimes the details matter. Though I don’t often use slides, I will be using them today to help illustrate the information.
One question I often get is whether COVID-19 is only spreading in urban areas, and if it’s true that you’re at a lower risk if you live outside a major city.
In fact, 12 of the 15 areas with the highest active case rates are not large cities.
Most of the areas with the highest active case rates are in rural locations.
As we see in this slide, COVID-19 remains a threat to the entire province.
Right now, there are 66 areas with an active case rate of 300 per 100,000, or more.
About half of those areas have an active case rate of 500 per 100,000 or greater.
Some of these areas – such as Lac La Biche County, Chestermere, Airdrie, Lacombe and Whitecourt – are reporting rates higher than Calgary.
In some, rates are double those in Edmonton.
Now, I know people will say that’s because the population size is smaller, which is true.
But using rates actually is the best way to compare transmission risks in different places in an apples to apples kind of way.
The bottom line is that right now, you are at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in many rural parts of our province than if you are living in a big city.
The second myth is that this is somehow new, and that people in rural areas have traditionally not been at risk.
While it is correct that some areas have had lower case rates at the beginning of the pandemic. That has clearly changed.
Also, case rates are not the only factor to consider.
It also is important to look at the rates of severe outcomes like hospitalizations if people get sick.
As the Premier noted, our data shows that, over the course of the pandemic, people living in rural areas have been more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to people living in urban areas.
Since the beginning of May, the North and Central Zones have had higher hospitalization rates per capita compared to any other region of the province.
The North Zone in particular has had hospitalization rates more than double those of Edmonton, Calgary, or South Zones.
Among cases diagnosed since February 2021, the case-to-hospitalization ratio is 26% higher for rural areas of Alberta than for urban ones.
This means if they contract COVID-19, people living in rural Alberta are 26% more likely to end up in hospital compared to those living in an urban location.
Similarly, the case to ICU ratio is 30% higher.
Out of the 647 hospitalizations reported yesterday, 225 of them live in rural areas, which is 19% higher than would be expected based on population alone.
Similarly, there are 66 patients with COVID-19 in ICU right now who don’t live in one of the major urban centres. This is 22% higher than we would expect based on their share of the population alone.
None of this is to stigmatize rural Albertans, or to suggest that any one part of our province is to blame.
This is not an urban versus rural issue – it is clear that COVID-19 is spreading and having an impact everywhere in our province.
This virus doesn’t care where we live or what we believe – anyone and everyone is a potential target for infection.
The next myth I’d like to address is around testing.
There have been ongoing questions raised about whether PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is the best technology to use to diagnose COVID-19 and determine if a patient is infectious.
PCR testing has been used for many years and is very specific, faster than older methods of identifying infectious agents, such as viral culture, and can identify infectious illness early in the course of disease.
PCR is routinely used to identify the influenza virus and other respiratory viruses, as well as new germs like Zika virus and Ebola, and many other infectious agents.
The PCR test that we use has been confirmed to be highly specific for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It does not react to other viruses, even other coronaviruses.
Studies have shown the PCR test is over 90% accurate in detecting the virus that causes COVID-19 in people at the very beginning of their illness.
Testing before symptoms start can detect about 50% of cases for those who are incubating the illness, with better accuracy in the day or two just before symptoms begin.
There’s been a lot of talk about false positives but our lab has evaluated the risk of false positives by testing samples known to be negative for COVID-19 and found that they are extremely rare.
The test techniques used in our laboratories have been validated against national standards, and are under continuous quality assurance, so we can rely on these results.
It is true that some people can continue to test positive for several weeks after they have been infected, as their body sheds dead virus;
However this is exactly why we do not require a negative test before ending isolation, and why we focus on testing at the start of symptoms and early after exposures have happened, to minimize the impact that this prolonged shedding could have.
PCR tests continue to be the gold standard across Canada and around the world,
And we will continue to use them in Alberta as a highly effective virus-fighting tool.
The results of these tests reinforce my earlier point: that COVID-19 is a province-wide problem right now.
Our positivity rates by health zone, seen on this graph, which is the percent of positive cases over all tests that are done, show us that every area of Alberta is struggling to contain this virus.
Right now, Alberta’s average positivity rate for the last seven days is 10.7%.
That is near the highest point it has ever been in this pandemic, and rates in every zone have been increasing over the past several months.
We are starting to see the beginning of the impact of new public health measures.
In the last week, positivity rates have remained stable or even decreased slightly in many zones, unfortunately except for North Zone.
As you can see in this graph, the North Zone’s rate is considerably higher than all other zones and it continues to grow.
Next, I want to express my concern about the fact that I continue to hear some people question whether COVID-19 poses a serious health threat to anyone besides the very elderly and those with certain medical conditions.
No matter someone’s age, their medical condition or where they live or work – every life is important and valued. This is not up for debate.
In addition, although the risk of death is significantly higher in some groups, especially those over the age of 80, COVID-19 continues to negatively impact healthy young adults, as well.
When you look at severe outcomes, 40% of those who have been hospitalized since the beginning of February have been under the age of 50, including 12% who were below the age of 30.
Similarly, 32% of those who have been admitted to the ICU since February 1st have been under the age of 50, with 7% under the age of 30.
While hospitalizations and deaths are, of course, the most tragic outcome from the virus, there are other serious, long-lasting impacts that thousands of Albertans face after surviving the virus including prolonged illness, sometimes called “Long COVID Syndrome”.
It could be years before the long-term impacts are fully understood.
Experts need time to study the experiences of people after infection to see how and if COVID can cause long-lasting complications as individuals age.
I know this is a lot of information, but we can, and must, continue to take this virus seriously.
As was said last year, we do not have to fear COVID-19, but we must respect it.
I urge Albertans to be thoughtful and appropriately critical of what you see on any social media or other platform.
Take a moment to assess the accuracy and consider the source of any information that you read before you believe it or pass it along.
Look for information from a reputable source, which ideally can be confirmed by multiple other reputable sources.
By doing so you will help stop the spread of misinformation and help keep us all safer.
Thank you and we’re happy to take questions.