COVID-19 Updates: Protecting Albertans from the Omicron variant.
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Thank you, Tom, and good afternoon everyone.
I am pleased to be back to provide another daily update and to talk about the next phase of our COVID-19 in our province.
First, here are today’s numbers.
In the last 24 hours, we identified 194 new cases and completed about 7,100 tests.
Our positivity rate was about 2.9%.
Currently, 84 people are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, including 18 admitted to the ICU.
Cases have risen recently, almost entirely in those who have not been fully vaccinated, as we expected would likely happen as people come in close contact with each other again.
Similar trends are being seen in other provinces that have lifted restrictions. I am pleased that overall, hospitalizations continue to decline and we will keep watching these closely.
As I’ve said before, vaccines dramatically reduce the risk of severe outcomes and the risk of infection.
For example, since July 1, people who were not fully immunized made up
- 95% of all cases of COVID-19,
- 94% of all those who have needed hospital care for COVID-19,
- and 95% of all COVID deaths.
Having two doses of vaccine has never been more important. The Delta variant spreads more easily and that second dose is critical for protection.
That’s why it’s good news that more than 64% of eligible Albertans are now fully immunized and 75% have had at least one dose of vaccine.
We still need to increase these numbers, but this is encouraging progress.
With so many people protected by vaccines, and doses available right now for everyone 12 and over, the threat of this still dangerous virus is shifting.
While COVID-19 cases may rise in the coming weeks and months, a surge of hospitalizations and other severe outcomes is much less likely thanks to vaccines.
I know that the rise in cases over the last week has created some anxiety in people.
After all, we have all been closely watching case counts for well over a year.
When we first heard of COVID-19, we knew little of the virus, and there were no treatments or vaccines.
This meant we needed to enact unprecedented measures to protect human life and to prevent our health care systems from being overwhelmed.
We have made incredible sacrifices – staying away from loved ones, closing the doors of our businesses and cancelling important events – all to protect one another.
These sacrifices were necessary at the time.
Today, we are in a very different place.
Vaccines are able to drastically reduce the risk of not only contracting the virus but, more importantly, getting severely ill.
From a public health standpoint, this has changed how we need to look at this virus.
As we have always done, we need to weigh the direct impacts of COVID-19, against the indirect impacts that come from our interventions, especially on children and other vulnerable groups.
With a vaccine readily available, the need for the types of extraordinary restrictions we used in the past has diminished.
At the same time, we must also start preparing for other health challenges.
Last year, we saw an extraordinary decline in other respiratory viruses. In fact, there was not a single case of seasonal influenza identified.
We expect that to change soon.
With the unprecedented public health measures used over the last year no longer in place, we will likely see higher levels of other respiratory viruses like influenza starting late this summer and into the fall.
Vaccines for some viruses, like influenza, are available. But it will mean more patients needing testing for clinical reasons and, in some cases, medical care.
We need to make sure that Alberta’s health system is able to support all patients.
That is why we are making changes to bring COVID-19 measures in line with how we handle other respiratory viruses, while keeping strong measures in place to protect Albertans.
After the past 17 months of restrictions, I know this will likely feel like a dramatic shift for many.
We have grown accustomed to protective measures, and so some anxiety is only natural.
I want to assure Albertans that some things will not change, not tomorrow and not any time this year.
We will continue respond to COVID-19 and keep key measures in place to protect everyone, including:
- Having vaccine appointments widely available
- Testing symptomatic Albertans for whom this information will change their treatment,
- And preventing and managing outbreaks in high-risk locations like continuing care.
However, we will start to change several other things gradually, while keeping a close eye on hospitalizations in Alberta.
The first changes will happen tomorrow, and are relatively small.
As of tomorrow, quarantine will no longer be universally legally required for close contacts of confirmed cases, although it could still be required in some high-risk settings or for outbreak management.
We are still recommending that close contacts who are not fully immunized avoid public places for 14 days,
And we still have mandatory isolation for both positive cases and symptomatic people.
Anyone who knows they have been exposed to COVID-19 should monitor for symptoms and should seek testing if they become symptomatic.
We will also stop routine asymptomatic testing for close contacts. This will help reduce wait times and ensure timely results in the coming months.
But to be clear: anyone experiencing symptoms should still isolate from others and will be able to get tested provincewide.
As quarantine is no longer required, contact tracers will no longer call close contacts. We recommend where it is possible to do so, positive cases notify their close contacts.
Public health will start focusing on identifying and managing outbreaks only in high-risk locations, such as continuing and acute care and high-risk workplaces.
We’ll keep watching COVID-19 closely,
And will take whatever actions are needed to manage any high risk outbreaks or severe cases, as we do with any communicable disease.
Over the next two weeks, we will closely monitor these changes and adapt as needed, to give more time to vaccinate Albertans before the remaining changes begin on August 16.
These upcoming changes in mid-August will be more significant.
For example, provincial masking orders on transit, taxis and ride shares will be lifted on that day.
Of course, masks may still be required in specific settings like vaccination sites, hospitals and continuing care facilities.
At this time, we are not planning to require universal masking in schools.
However, we will be recommending it as a temporary outbreak intervention in response to respiratory outbreaks.
Schools will also be asked to support those who choose to wear masks.
We know that many parents and teachers have questions, and a guidance document is being finalized and will be released in mid-August to support return to school.
In addition, starting August 16, isolation will no longer be universally legally required if you test positive for COVID-19, although it may be required in some high-risk settings.
It will, however, continue to be strongly recommended in all settings.
Staying home when sick will remain an important way to care for those around us by not passing on any infection, COVID or any other.
Testing will continue to play a part of our COVID-19 response in Alberta, but it will be changing.
Starting on August 16, we will no longer recommend that all those with mild symptoms seek testing, but rather should stay home until they are feeling better.
Testing will be available for Albertans with symptoms where it is needed to make treatment decisions.
This can be done through assessment centres until the end of August.
After August 31, testing for COVID-19 will be available for patients whose sypmtoms are severe enough to need care in hospitals or physicians’ clinics.
It will conducted when needed for informing treatment decisions, and as needed for outbreaks in high-risk settings.
At the same time, we will also be launching a wastewater testing program to monitor the province.
Testing wastewater has proven to be an accurate and valuable tool in providing early warning of a possible rise in cases.
This program will work hand in hand with individual testing results to give us a good sense of where COVID-19 is in the province.
More information on this testing program will be released in the coming weeks.
I know that this is a lot of information to take in so I encourage all Albertans to take the time to review the changes at alberta.ca.
As I’ve said many times, COVID-19 is not something we have to fear, but it is something we need to respect, and we will continue to do so.
These changes are a necessary step forward, one that will let us keep supporting those who become severely ill,
But also help us care for those who get sick from the flu or other viruses.
I want to be clear that COVID is not over. COVID-19 is still a very serious virus, and it can have life-threatening consequences.
And it is now primarily infecting people who don’t have their vaccine who are the minority of those who are eligible.
The high protection from vaccine I spoke about earlier has been seen since our vaccine program started.
95% of all cases since January were unvaccinated or still developing immunity in the early days after a first dose.
The same goes for hospitalizations, where 92% since January had no vaccine or were still within two weeks of their first dose.
Just one patient of the 18 in the ICU right now was fully vaccinated – all the rest did not have the benefit that two doses of vaccine offer.
So, I want to end today with “a call to arms”, to borrow a phrase from other public health colleagues.
Please get vaccinated. If you haven’t gotten both your doses yet, this is your time.
If you are between the ages of 20 to 39, and think you are not at risk from infection, it’s important to know that more than 1,400 Albertans of your age have needed hospital care for COVID-19 over the last 17 months, and 200 have needed ICU care.
This does not include those who go on to develop long-COVID, with serious implications for their lives.
Now is your best chance to protect yourself and to prevent passing infection to your friends or family.
For those who have concerns about myocarditis, it’s important to know that in a study of healthy college athletes who were infected with COVID-19, the occurrence of symptomatic heart inflammation was 100 times greater after infection than the rare events observed after vaccine.
Please use reliable information to make decisions, and join the millions of Albertans who have gotten vaccinated.
I encourage you to take the opportunity to access this life-saving intervention and make the choice to get protected.
Vaccine will protect you, it will protect those around you, and it will keep our entire province safer in the months ahead.
Thank you, and I’m happy to answer questions.