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Alberta’s Omicron cases nearly double


‘I think we still need to send the message home that you need to be vaccinated, you want to be vaccinated’

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An Alberta ICU doctor says the provincial government should expand booster shot eligibility as quickly as possible as the number of Omicron COVID-19 variant cases in the province nearly doubled on Thursday.

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Provincial data show there have been 119 cases of the highly infectious Omicron variant found in Alberta, up from the 60 cases that had been identified as of Wednesday. Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Twitter that the 59 new cases were from three days of samples: Dec. 12, Dec. 13 and Dec. 14.

“Our lab has shifted to a quicker testing process for the Omicron variant which means that today we are reporting a large number of Omicron cases coming from several days all at once,” tweeted Hinshaw. “I want to assure Albertans that we are closely monitoring developments around this variant and there are additional measures in place to help slow the spread.”

The Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, has been found to be more virulent and contagious than other strains of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that fuelled the fourth wave that put Alberta’s health-care system under extreme pressures. Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Hinshaw said Omicron could bring a fifth wave to the province that could once again put pressure on hospitals.

It is not yet known what that wave will look like as there is a chance Omicron could cause milder illness; however, World Health Organization officials have cautioned against characterizing disease caused by the virus as mild.

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Raiyan Chowdhury, an ICU doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, said the government should look to expand who is eligible to receive a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine. He said current data show the standard two doses may not be enough to stop Omicron from spreading.

“The one thing that does seem to make a difference is that booster,” said Chowdhury. “That’s probably where the government can make a big difference, is pushing that booster to people as fast as possible.”

Premier Jason Kenney announced on Wednesday that anyone aged 50 or older who received their second shot at least six months ago can book an appointment to get a third dose. First Nation, Metis and Inuit Albertans over the age of 18 can also receive a third shot. Kenney said demand for third shots is expected to exceed the province’s current supply while he called for more doses from the federal government.

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Kenney also announced Wednesday that the province would be removing a restriction on indoor gatherings that previously limited them to individuals from a maximum of two households. Now, 10 people from any number of households may gather and children under the age of 12 do not count towards the maximum gathering number. Unvaccinated Albertans are now allowed to gather in groups of up to 10. Prior to Wednesday, unvaccinated individuals could not attend indoor gatherings.

Chowdhury said the removal of the two-household limit made sense as he suspected the rule was not in line with what was happening in reality. However, he said the removal of restrictions around unvaccinated individuals could send the wrong message.

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“I think we still need to send the message home that you need to be vaccinated, you want to be vaccinated,” said Chowdhury.

Earlier Thursday, health critic David Shepherd called on the Alberta government to release comprehensive modelling around what the spread of Omicron could look like in Alberta. He also called for Alberta to expand who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 booster shot.

“While other provinces are sharing the data and warning people of what’s to come, in Alberta we get nothing. Either the Premier and his government have modelling that they’re refusing to share, or they’re making these decisions without data to back them up. For the sake of our province, I have to believe the former,” said Shepherd.

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Shepherd also called for restrictions to be reimplemented after the Wednesday changes.

NDP health critic David Shepherd during a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
NDP health critic David Shepherd during a press conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Photo by David Bloom/Postmedia

Harrison Fleming, press secretary for the premier, said Thursday that Quebec followed Alberta’s lead in the face of Omicron, bringing indoor gatherings to a limit of 10 people.

“We’re glad to see other provinces following our lead on this. As for further measures, we take advice from our chief medical officer of health,” said Fleming in an email.

Quebec brought in a number of other restrictions around indoor capacity rules, such as a 50 per cent capacity limit on places of worship as well as a 50 per cent cap on public activities. The Montreal Canadians announced they would play their game against the Philadelphia Flyers in front of no fans after public health officials recommended they do so

Ontario, where there is currently a spike in cases due to Omicron, put a limit on gatherings over 1,000 people, restricting such events to 50 per cent capacity. Public health experts in that province called on the government to introduce circuit breaker conditions ahead of the holidays.

Alberta reported 473 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, bringing active infections to 4,212. There are currently 352 people with COVID-19 in hospital, including 70 of whom are in intensive care.

— With files from The Canadian Press and Jason Herring

dshort@postmedia.com

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