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New COVID cases over holidays ‘only the tip of the iceberg’: Hinshaw


Over the past five days, test positivity rates have ranged from as low as 17 per cent to as high as 22 per cent

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Alberta is reporting unprecedented rates of COVID-19 infection over the Christmas holiday, but the province’s top doctor says those confirmed cases are “only the tip of the iceberg.”

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The province tallied an estimated 8,250 new cases since its last data update five days ago, a spike brought on by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant. On those five days, test positivity rates have ranged from 17 per cent to 22 per cent. In Calgary and Edmonton, about one-third of people receiving a PCR test were positive for the virus.

“We have never before had a higher positivity rate than just over 13 per cent in any of our previous waves,” Alberta chief medical officer health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said at a Tuesday news conference.

“This is one more data point that reinforces that Omicron is different from anything we have faced before.”

The Tuesday update marked the first public appearance by Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney in nearly a week, after Alberta suspended reporting of COVID-19 statistics over the Christmas holiday. The infection numbers are only estimates, Hinshaw noted, with a full data update including hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths from the virus expected Wednesday.

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The provided case numbers likely vastly under-report the current level of COVID-19 infection in Alberta, Hinshaw said, in part due to a move to reduce PCR testing at Alberta Health Services locations, restricting those tests primarily to workers and residents at specific outbreak sites, as well as individuals at high risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.

Since last week, Alberta has asked the majority of residents with COVID-19 symptoms to isolate and use a rapid antigen testing kit. Those rapid tests have been difficult to come by for some, however, with demand for the devices outstripping the supply shipped to local pharmacies.

“In the fourth wave, we anticipate that we were catching about one in six of our actual cases with our PCR testing program,” Hinshaw said.

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“With the shift to making rapid tests available, I would anticipate the PCR tests that we’re currently reporting as positive are just the tip of the iceberg, and it would be expected that the total number of people who actually have Omicron would be much greater than is currently captured in our numbers.”

Rocky View County resident Sarah Krokis said she wants a process implemented to allow Albertans with positive test results to log them with Alberta Health. She is one of four people in her house who have COVID-19, but since three of those cases were confirmed via rapid test kits, they will not be included in the provincial count.

“The numbers aren’t going to reflect how many people have this. I know other people who have this, too, and they’re not included in the numbers,” Krokis said.

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Kenney said Alberta’s move to reduce PCR testing wasn’t a political or economic decision, but one necessitated by the volume of Albertans presenting with symptoms of COVID-19. He said even if Alberta pushed labs to their limits, testing capacity would still fall short of testing demand.

“This is the reality that jurisdictions all around the world are facing,” Kenney said. “We encourage people to assume if they have cold-like symptoms, they are likely positive with the Omicron variant.”

The lack of universal access to COVID-19 rapid test kits will present problems for Albertans, said University of Calgary health policy expert Lorian Hardcastle. She said those tests must be made more readily available to ensure all Albertans can follow public health guidance and use a rapid test if they feel sick.

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Steele Grasza holds the COVID-19 test kits he has picked up at Northwest Pharmacy on Monday, December 20, 2021.
Steele Grasza holds the COVID-19 test kits he has picked up at Northwest Pharmacy on Monday, December 20, 2021. Photo by Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Another concern for Hardcastle is formal documentation of test results, which some Albertans may need to access supports related to workplace compensation or treatments for long COVID.

“The government needs to come up with a solution because people can’t be denied benefits on the basis that they can’t access testing technology, and it’s a problem that’s in the government’s ability to solve for people,” Hardcastle said.

Hinshaw said discussions are ongoing about how Albertans can document rapid tests, but said in the meantime it is “prudent” for Albertans who test positive with a rapid test to contact their family doctor so the diagnosis is on file.

The Omicron variant is the most highly transmissible strain of COVID-19 detected to date, with the ability to cause infection among those with two doses of vaccine or prior infection, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said last week.

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Though emerging research increasingly suggests Omicron causes less severe illness than the previously dominant Delta variant, both Tam and Hinshaw have cautioned it remains too early to know the full effect the strain will have on health-care systems.

As of Dec. 22, the last date for which data was reported, there were 318 Albertans in hospital with COVID-19, 64 of whom were in ICUs. A total of 3,299 Albertans had died from the virus since the pandemic’s onset in March 2020. Hinshaw said hospitalizations have been stable in the past week but cautioned hospital admissions typically lag several weeks behind infections.

Kenney argued Alberta is in a better position now, near the onset of the fifth wave, than at the start of previous waves. He said this is due to high immunization rates against the virus, with just under 90 per cent of Alberta adults having received at least one dose of vaccine. As of Dec. 22, the last day for which data is available, 761,153 Albertans had also received a third shot.

About 360,000 eligible Albertans remain unvaccinated, however, a statistic Kenney said is a cause for concern.

“I’m very concerned that those people are particularly vulnerable to the Omicron variant,” Kenney said. “While transmission is possible for people who are vaccinated, the chances of hospitalization are radically lower than for people who are unvaccinated.”

jherring@postmedia.com

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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