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Around 4,000 new cases reported; concerns rise over lack of response


The new cases come from a positivity rate of about 30 per cent

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Alberta reported a new pandemic high of around 4,000 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as hospitalization rates continue to increase.

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Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s planned COVID-19 update was rescheduled for Friday due to a meeting with the province’s COVID-19 cabinet committee to discuss “the latest developments and trends with the Omicron variant.” Instead, the province only released preliminary estimates of new data.

“Decisions are pending and an update will be provided tomorrow,” Alberta Health spokeswoman Lisa Glover said in an email to Postmedia.

The new cases come from a positivity rate of about 30 per cent. The total provincial case count was last reported Wednesday at 17,396, though the number is likely under-reported as most Albertans are told to avoid PCR tests to confirm a positive test result.

Hospitalization rates increased for a fifth day. There are now 371 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, up from 349. Admissions to intensive-care units dropped, however — there are now 48 Albertans in ICU with the virus compared to 57 on Wednesday.

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Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, said it’s too early to tell what effect Omicron will have on Alberta’s hospitalization rates, but a worrisome pattern has emerged.

“As soon as the wave starts falling, people who have been neglecting to come in with their significant medical conditions that are not COVID-related come in sicker,” Mithani said.

“The problem this time is that there was very, very little break between the fourth wave and the fifth wave. The concern is that if those two things coincide, it’s just going to worsen the volumes that we’re seeing in hospital.”

Earlier this week, Premier Jason Kenney said the Alberta government was considering lowering isolation requirements from 10 days to five days for fully vaccinated people following revised recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Ontario introduced the new five-day requirement on Thursday.

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Mithani said she is also worried lowering isolation requirements could result in further health-care staffing shortages.

“If I’m infectious at the end of Day 5 and I spread it to three of my colleagues, they have to go off work. It could actually end up having a ripple effect,” she said.

“If we’re in a situation where health-care workers start contracting COVID and have to isolate, we’re going to see a staffing crisis very quickly.”

Relying on rapid antigen tests for the majority of Albertans will also prevent health officials from knowing where transmission is coming from, she said. Rapid tests also may show a negative result one day but a positive result the next.

“It clearly shows that there are pitfalls with the rapid tests and the potential for people to be falsely reassured by a negative test.”

When administered correctly, rapid tests can identify 75 to 80 per cent of infections in people experiencing symptoms. For people without symptoms, rapid tests can identify 20 to 60 per cent of infections, according to the province.

“Antigen tests are less sensitive than PCR tests. This means they can be negative even when someone is infected. For this reason, even if someone gets a negative result on a rapid antigen test, they must continue to follow all public health guidelines,” Glover said in an email.

As case numbers with Omicron skyrocket, Mithani said the Alberta government needs to do more to curb transmission.

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For example, the province’s 50 per cent capacity limit at entertainment, event and recreation facilities still allows for around 10,000 hockey fans to crowd together inside the Saddledome. Meanwhile, the Quebec government closed in-person attendance at Montreal Canadiens games to curb COVID-19 spread earlier this month.

“If we continue to allow thousands of people to go to a hockey game, or hundreds of people to go to a bar or a wedding, it’s not going to make any difference. There needs to be additional community measures put in place.”

For New Year’s Eve, Glover said the province is encouraging all Albertans to follow the health rules that are in place, whether it is restrictions at a business or event, or a social gathering at home.

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“We have asked Albertans to look at ways to reduce their social interactions by 50 per cent. It is important that Albertans reduce in-person social interactions as much as possible right now. Most importantly, whatever the plan, stay home or cancel if you are feeling unwell in any way.”

Albertans should be cautious about relying on rapid tests for social gatherings, especially ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations, Mithani said. She encouraged limiting contacts as much as possible and avoiding places with large crowds indoors, along with employing other tools such as good hand hygiene and properly fitted respirators or medical masks.

“Make sure you’re just making smart decisions and thinking about the people around you, not just yourself.”

bgervais@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB

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