COVID-19 Updates: Protecting Albertans from the Omicron variant.
Thank you, Minister and good morning, everyone.
I’d like to begin today’s update with a reminder that we do not have new data available today.
As I said last week, we have adjusted our reporting over the holidays as a way to give our teams some much-needed time off - while still providing two media availabilities and case numbers three times this week - to keep Albertans informed.
Other provinces have also reduced reporting or are following a similar holiday schedule. It has, of course, been a long two years for everyone.
A full numbers update for December 23 to 28 was posted online Wednesday, and estimates were provided yesterday afternoon.
We will resume regular reporting including providing a day-by-day breakdown for today to January 3rd, on Tuesday.
As of yesterday, we had about 21,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the province that we know about.
As has been true throughout the pandemic, the total number of new and active cases in the province is greater than those figures, and this is further changed by our necessary recent adjustment to our testing protocols, similar to other provinces coping with extraordinary volumes of cases.
This isn’t new. From the beginning of the pandemic, daily numbers have only given us a snapshot of our situation. They’ve shown us proportionality and trends – what areas of the province are experiencing surges in cases, for example.
This information provides evidence that has allowed us to make and measure decisions. But daily case numbers have never been an exact count.
They have never included those Albertans who choose not to get tested…because their symptoms are so mild or because they’re non-existent and they’re not aware they have the virus.
In previous waves of the pandemic, we believe our PCR testing program captured about 1 in 4 cases of COVID-19. In the fourth wave, that changed to about 1 in 6.
As more individuals who are symptomatic or have been exposed to the virus test themselves at home with rapid antigen tests, that ratio is dropping even more with the Omicron variant.
Fortunately, we have additional monitoring tools to help us gauge the level of transmission, including leading indicators like wastewater surveillance and syndromic surveillance, and lagging indicators such as serology sampling.
In addition, we are still be able to monitor severe outcomes due to COVID-19 with no change.
We also have real-time data emerging around the world, as other countries and other provinces are experiencing the Omicron variant several weeks ahead of us.
As we adjust our testing approach, it is important to remember why we do testing in the first place.
Testing for infectious diseases has several purposes. First and most importantly, it helps plan treatments for those infected and for this reason we must ensure that those who need PCR testing and need it for clinical care.
Second, it helps to identify and manage outbreaks in high risk settings where infections are most likely to cause severe outcomes like continuing care and acute care.
We must maintain timely access to testing in these locations as well.
Third, testing helps us with surveillance and monitoring, which does not require diagnosis of all cases.
We have been testing more broadly for COVID-19 than for any other infection we have ever dealt with but this was primarily due to the initial pandemic response goal of containing spread of the virus by individual case and contact efforts.
We do not need to document the majority of cases in order to have an effective surveillance system, and we are adjusting to the new testing approach.
Finally, as I mentioned, the fourth reason for broad testing was most applicable early in the pandemic when managing spread of the virus by identifying as many cases as possible and their contacts was one of the only ways we had to minimize COVID’s impact.
We are in a very different place right now with respect to COVID. We have vaccines that are extremely effective at preventing severe outcomes.
And, we are currently facing a variant that is so infectious, and spreads so quickly, that individual case and contact management will not be effective.
We must use proactive approaches rather than reactive ones.
We will continue to watch all of our metrics to help get a well-rounded view of Omicron in the coming day and weeks.
While we will continue to learn more about this variant, what we do know at this time is that the Omicron variant is spreading far more quickly than any variant we have ever experienced.
With more people being infected – and in a very short time – that poses a significant potential threat to our health care system.
Even though it seems that a smaller percentage of cases are requiring acute care, we can expect that with a greater number of people infected, that will soon translate into a greater number of people in hospital.
How high these numbers will get is still not known.
We’ve had the benefit of seeing the variant play out in other countries first.
What we can learn from them is that while two doses of vaccine still provide good protection against severe outcomes, a third dose improves even more. In addition, a third dose provides much better protection against infection.
In countries like the UK and Denmark, where Omicron is spreading widely, their early reports of health system impact indicate that hospital and ICU admissions are not rising as quickly as in previous waves. This is encouraging but not conclusive.
It is still too early to know the full impact of Omicron, even in those other countries.
It is also important to note that in both of those countries, their booster program has reached more than 40 per cent of their population, while we are still at around 20 per cent.
I urge everyone to get their third dose as soon as possible with whatever vaccine is available to you.
I want to speak specifically about the Moderna vaccine and mixing different vaccine types. Data from the UK show that in those with a primary series of Pfizer vaccine, having a Moderna booster resulted in higher and longer lasting levels of protection than a Pfizer booster.
I am hearing reports that some people wish to wait for Pfizer to be available, and while I understand a wish to have the same vaccine, we do not have enough Pfizer right now for people to pick this vaccine AND get a timely third dose.
Please take the vaccine that is available to you soonest.
For those who are under 30, there is a slightly increased risk of myocarditis with a second dose of Moderna, over Pfizer. We don’t yet know if this will hold for the third dose.
So while it is recommended that Pfizer can be the third dose option for those under 30, if individuals wish to choose Moderna, they are able to do to so.
If you get Moderna, you can be confident that this booster is giving you the best protection available.
Getting every dose of vaccine you are eligible for is an important way to slow the growth of Omicron – and to mitigate the risk to our health-care system and to Albertans.
It is also critically important to limit in-person contact with others and follow all measures currently in place.
I say this knowing that today is New Year’s Eve.
And tonight and over the weekend, many people are planning to gather with family and friends to ring in what we hope will be a much better year.
I know we are all so tired of COVID.
Many of us hoped that last New Year’s Eve would be the last celebration we would have to put on hold because of the virus.
Unfortunately, COVID doesn’t care about our celebrations. And it doesn’t care that we miss getting together with our family and friends.
Our best defense right now is to keep our social interactions small because wherever COVID has the chance to spread, it will.
We need to limit our gatherings or postpone them altogether.
I know this is difficult.
This year, restrictions do allow for us to go out with friends or gather indoors to celebrate the new year.
But they require us to do so in a limited way.
If going out to a restaurant or a party in a hall or other venue, all restrictions must be followed.
Please keep groups small, wear your mask when you’re not at your table and when you’re not eating or drinking and, more importantly, if you feel even slightly ill, please stay home.
If you’re going to an indoor social gathering or you’re hosting one yourself, please keep it small – 10 people maximum. The fewer the better.
Ask any guests to stay home if they are feeling ill. And if you’re feeling ill yourself – please cancel the gathering.
I know that living in Alberta can make it difficult to celebrate outside in the winter. We have been reminded of this over the past several days.
But it looks like the forecast for this weekend may be cooperating with milder temperatures.
So if you’re able to celebrate New Year’s Day outdoors, please do so. You may even find it to be a welcome relief from being cooped up indoors over the last week or so.
Wherever you go and whatever you do, you should anticipate that one or more people present in any location will likely be infectious with Omicron, even if they don’t have symptoms.
Make decisions and take precautions based on that assumption and the knowledge that action now is critical to preserving our health care system in the coming month.
Even though this is not the way any of us want to celebrate the New Year, there is still hope.
Over the last year Albertans have demonstrated their strength and resilience and their determination to end this pandemic.
Most of us have gotten two doses of vaccine and many are now getting the booster.
Children five to eleven now have vaccine available to them, and are getting their first doses with second doses coming soon.
That commitment to doing the right thing is what gives me hope for the year ahead.
We must continue to do what’s right for us and for our communities; to work together so we can truly enjoy a new start and a brand new year.
Thank you and we’re happy to take questions.