Checked against delivery.
Thank you, Minister, and good afternoon, everyone.
This is our first week transitioning from daily to weekly reporting. Due to this transition, the numbers shared today include four days, Friday to Monday.
Next Wednesday, and every week going forward, our reporting period will cover seven days – from Tuesday to Monday of the following week.
As I mentioned last week, information will be shared at weekly media availabilities, and posted online.
When you visit the statistics dashboard at alberta.ca, you may notice that some pages look different, or that some information is no longer there.
We have consolidated some data to ensure we continue to provide the most current and relevant information to Albertans and that it’s presented in a user-friendly way.
Turning to the numbers… the leading metric that is most useful at this time is our positivity rate, and between Friday and Monday, this ranged from 20.6% to 27.1%, with an average of 23.5%.
As the Minister mentioned, there are currently 956 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including 56 in the ICU.
Sadly, since Friday, an average of 5 deaths per day related to COVID-19 have been reported to Alberta Health.
These individuals were between the ages of 54 and 94.
This is a reminder of the fact that this infection is still a significant threat to many of us, and our friends and family.
It is important to take this seriously as we move into activities we haven’t done for a while, and consider how to best support those around us to mitigate the risks.
My thoughts are with anyone who has recently lost a loved one, whether to COVID or any other cause.
We have had many questions from Albertans about the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron that has been in the news recently and I’d like to share what we know so far.
First, it’s important to remember that many viruses constantly change through mutations. This is to be expected – especially with a virus as transmissible and prevalent as the one that causes COVID-19.
And this is why, since the start of the pandemic, we have been actively monitoring the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 viruses identified in the province.
This has helped us to understand how the virus is evolving in our population and to detect the arrival of variant strains from outside the province.
As we’ve seen over the last two years, some variants emerge and disappear without large impacts, while others persist and become dominant, like Delta and Omicron.
Currently, all COVID-19 cases identified through PCR tests are screened for variants of concern, and our variant screening and sequencing for genomic surveillance picks up variants and subvariants, including BA.2.
As of March 21, approximately 60% of positive cases are BA.2 so it is now the dominant strain of Omicron in the province.
Although inherently more transmissible than BA.1, so far there is no evidence of it causing more severe disease than BA.1 based on data on clinical data from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Denmark and Ontario.
While this is good news, we only have to look back to the fifth wave to see that a virus that is more transmissible can cause a large impact at a population level, even if the risk of severe outcomes is the same or lower for individuals.
We should expect to see transmission trending upwards in the coming weeks, meaning that those at risk of severe outcomes should revisit their precautionary measures, and those who have not yet gotten their booster dose should do so as soon as possible.
This is particularly important for those who are 65 or older, or those who have medical conditions like COPD or diabetes that put them at risk for more severe outcomes.
A booster now will provide important added protection in the coming months.
I want to also speak briefly about fourth doses. There have been a lot of questions about whether we will be expanding eligibility for fourth doses to those who have had their third booster many months ago.
We have taken this question to our Alberta Advisory Committee on Immunization several times, and their advice so far is aligned with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which is to offer a fourth dose at this time, only to those with significant immunocompromising conditions who had a primary series of three doses.
Our data from the fifth wave showed that three doses in other groups continued to provide a high level of protection against severe outcomes.
There has been much discussion about data from Israel and the US on fourth doses, and while we are watching this closely, it is also important to remember that vaccine series spacing in Canada used a longer interval between first and second doses than was used in these other countries.
We now know that the longer interval provided a higher level of protection, and it is not yet clear how that plays out over time.
I have also heard questions about those who got AstraZeneca vaccine last spring, and then received mRNA vaccine, with a final dose more than five months ago.
There are questions about whether this particular group should get a fourth dose, and this question was also taken to our advisory committee.
At this time, the recommendation for this group remains the same as for others – those who got AstraZeneca and then one or more doses of mRNA vaccine more than five months ago are not recommended to have additional doses, if they have already had a total of three doses of vaccine.
We continue to monitor the evidence very carefully and to listen to the advice of our provincial and national advisory committees.
We will inform Albertans of any changes to fourth dose recommendations and eligibility whenever they are made.
Regardless of what variant or subvariant is most prevalent in Alberta, we know that we have tools at our disposal that have served us well for the past two years.
The most important thing each of us can do to help limit the spread of COVID-19 is to get the protection that vaccines offer.
If you or someone you know hasn’t received all doses they’re eligible for yet, please do so today. Vaccines are widely available across the province and the majority of locations are offering walk-up appointments for adults and youth.
More information is available online at the Alberta Vaccine Booking System and the Blue Cross list of location with vaccines.
Another critical step we all need to take is to stay home when we have any symptoms.
With that, I would like to remind Albertans that there is a substantial supply of free rapid tests available at pharmacies across the province.
Just check the Alberta Blue Cross website to see which locations near you have them in stock, and pick up several boxes to have them on hand in case someone in the household feels sick.
Remember that with rapid tests, if you are feeling sick, it is important to take two tests, 24 hours apart, if the first one is negative.
It’s also important to stay home and away from others until you are feeling better, even if both test results are negative.
I know we all wish we could forget about COVID completely, but unfortunately it will be with us for a long time to come. We can support each other to take steps to balance the risks in our own lives, remembering that our actions also have far-reaching impacts on those we don’t know.
Thank you, and we’re happy to take questions.