Checked against delivery.
Thank you, Minister, and good afternoon, everyone.
Before I speak about COVID, I want to address some questions we have been getting about cases of severe hepatitis, or liver inflammation, in children that have been reported in several countries around the world.
What we know right now is that roughly 170 cases of sudden liver inflammation in children 16 and under have been reported globally, mostly in European countries and the United States.
While this is a small number, unfortunately about 17 of these cases have gone on to need a liver transplant, and sadly, one case has died.
There are many causes for hepatitis, but in these cases, the most common causes have been ruled out, and it is not clear what led to the condition. There have been no confirmed cases in Alberta to date, and we are working to provide information frontline physicians on this topic.
There is a great deal of work being done on this globally, and some cases have had an adenovirus, a common cold virus, identified.
It is not clear if this virus is causing the hepatitis, but it is one possible cause that is being explored.
For parents in Alberta who may be worried about this, I want to underline the point that this is a very rare condition with only about 170 cases identified worldwide.
If there is an infectious cause of this syndrome, the same things we have been doing as parents over the last two years will still be valuable now, such as reminding our kids to clean their hands regularly and continuing to support the important practice of encouraging everyone in our circles to stay home when feeling sick.
Using masks in public places can be an option for families who wish to add an extra layer of precaution.
We are working closely with federal, provincial and territorial partners to monitor emerging information and will keep Albertans informed of any developments.
For today’s COVID update, between Tuesday, April 19 to Monday, April 25, our PCR test positivity rate ranged from 23.4 to 30.6% with an average of 25.8% for the week.
This is stable from the previous week.
As the Minister mentioned, hospitalizations have increased slightly.
Currently, there are 1,220 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including 47 in the ICU.
Sadly, between April 19 and April 25, an average of 9 deaths per day related to COVID-19 were reported to Alberta Health.
By comparison, US data estimates that there was an average of 1 death per day per two million people pre-COVID for influenza and RSV combined, which would be 2 to 3 deaths per day in Alberta on average.
Clearly, COVID is still something we need to be mindful of.
The individuals whose deaths were reported in the last week were between the ages of 32 and 103.
My deepest sympathies are with their loved ones and everyone in Alberta who has recently lost someone they cared about, no matter the cause.
As COVID continues to circulate in our communities and some Albertans continue to experience severe outcomes, I want to review the options available to help Albertans prevent serious outcomes and treat COVID-19 infections.
Vaccination remains the single most effective tool we have to reduce the risk of experiencing severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Even against the BA.2 variant, vaccines are effective at preventing these worst case scenarios. That is why we continue to urge Albertans to get every dose they are eligible for.
As the Minister has mentioned, this includes fourth doses for all Albertans age 70 and older, First Nations, Inuit and Metis people aged 65 and older, all residents in seniors’ congregate care facilities, and those with serious immunocompromising conditions, as long as a minimum of five months have passed since their third dose.
While on the topic of vaccines, I would like to advise Albertans that after this week AstraZeneca products will no longer be available in Canada wit respect to COVID-19 vaccines.
Several other options exist, including Moderna and Pfizer which are the preferred options, and of which Alberta has ample supply.
In addition, Alberta also continues to have some Janssen and Novavax vaccines available for those who may need or prefer a non-mRNA vaccine.
While I continue to stress the importance of a receiving a full series of vaccine, as the Minister mentioned, we are also working to improve access to Paxlovid for those who can benefit most.
We have had a lot of questions about the eligibility for this prescription oral antiviral treatment that can help reduce the risk of severe of disease in some individuals.
It is important to remember that determining who can benefit most from this medication depends on who is most at risk of severe outcomes right now.
With any medication, including Paxlovid, it is important to consider what benefit a medication can provide and also what the potential side effects are.
For someone at high risk of severe outcomes, such as an older person with no vaccine protection, the benefit of early treatment in reducing the risk of severe outcome risk is large, balancing out the risk of side effects for most in this group.
For someone with a lower risk of severe outcomes, such as someone with a full series of vaccine plus all boosters they are eligible for, the benefit of Paxlovid is less since they have a lower risk to begin with.
This is true for most people even if they have a condition like diabetes, because vaccines still provide good protection against severe outcomes.
This means the side effects from Paxlovid may be worse for them than COVID risk.
There has also been some confusion about the difference between immunocompromising conditions and chronic conditions, so I want to address that as well.
People who have immunocompromising conditions like being on cancer treatment, or post-transplant medications that stop the immune system from working fully, still benefit significantly from vaccines, but not as much as those whose immune systems aren’t being impacted by this kind of medication.
That means that people in this category are eligible for this early treatment independent of how many vaccine doses they have had, because their immune systems respond differently to vaccines than other people.
I want to stress that vaccines are still important for this group, and at the same time, they can benefit more from Paxlovid than people who have a condition like heart disease or diabetes and who are fully immunized.
People living in long term care or designated supportive living, regardless of vaccination status, may also benefit from oral antivirals given their combination of older age and medical complexity.
Another consideration in using antivirals like Paxlovid is how its use may lead to antiviral resistance.
The more widely we use medications against viruses or bacteria, the greater the chance is that that particular tool will lose effectiveness in the long term, so using it in those who benefit most is also most likely to keep its usefulness intact for as long as possible.
Oral antivirals also have many interactions with commonly prescribed medications, and physicians and pharmacists are well positioned to support patients when considering whether this treatment is a good option for them.
Albertans who have COVID-19 symptoms and meet the eligibility criteria listed at ahs.ca/covidopt should book a test right away as treatment should begin soon after the start of symptoms.
If you test positive, please call the dedicated Health Link line to be assessed for outpatient treatments such as Paxlovid.
If you are eligible, you will be referred to a physician with the Outpatient Treatment Program who will determine what treatment will be of greatest benefit to you and either issue a prescription for Paxlovid, or book an appointment for a Remdesivir infusion.
As of April 1, all pharmacies can dispense Paxlovid if they choose to do so.
Albertans can check the Alberta Blue Cross website to see which pharmacies in their area are dispensing Paxlovid, and work with their prescriber to have the prescription sent there.
All pharmacies have been reminded of their obligation to support patients and to refer them to other pharmacies if they are unable to dispense Paxlovid within the timelines necessary to start treatment.
Paxlovid is an extra line of defense that can help some people with their COVID-19 infection, but we should not and cannot solely depend on it to get us through.
As has been the case since day one with this virus, we need to use many different tactics to address COVID-19.
What these are may differ depending on our comfort levels, risk tolerance, and personal risks, but being vaccinated with every dose you’re eligible for, staying home when sick, and wearing masks in crowded indoor public spaces will all make a difference in helping to break the chains of transmission in our communities.
Thank you, and we’re happy to take questions.