Wastewater levels of COVID-19 are on the rise in Alberta’s two largest cities and the positivity rate from restricted PCR tests is up from last week, but Health Minister Jason Copping isn’t looking at additional public health measures yet.
“We will continue to monitor these levels and other leading indicators in the coming days and coming weeks,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Copping reiterated increased pressure on hospitals would be a factor in deciding on further public health measures.
“We’re going to have to wait and see.”
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In an update with provincial COVID-19 data from March 22 to 28, the health minister said hospitalization numbers were “stable”: 964 people were in hospital with COVID-19 on Wednesday, an increase of eight from last week, and 47 of those in hospital were in ICU, a decrease of nine from March 21.
The health minister announced 30 more deaths were reported in the past week, bringing the pandemic death toll in Alberta to 4,074.
A week ago, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, nicknamed “stealth Omicron,” has become the dominant variant in the province with 60 per cent of positive PCR tests having the subvariant detected. On Wednesday, Copping said that had increased to 70 per cent.
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The seven-day average of PCR test positivity rate has been inching up, as well, from 22 per cent a week ago to 24.5 per cent.
But PCR tests are still not widely available. On Jan 10, PCR tests were restricted to “those who have clinical risk factors for severe outcomes and those who live and work in high-risk settings.”
Copping said increased transmission of COVID-19 is perhaps not a surprise, given the more transmissible nature of BA.2 and changes to public health measures, including the removal of the indoor mask mandate on March 1.
Alberta COVID-19 wastewater levels trending up in Calgary, Edmonton
“There are simply more opportunities for the virus to spread as more and more people work from the office, a return to traveling, socialize in various settings and resume their regular routines.”
The health minister urged Albertans to also get rapid antigen tests, available at pharmacies and AHS assessment centres across the province.
Since March 5, the government has distributed 844,020 rapid tests to pharmacies in three tranches:
- March 5 to 11: 349,920
- March 12 to 20: 282,420
- March 21 to 28: 211,680
Overall, Alberta has given out 13.8 million rapid antigen tests.
Copping announced expanded access to Paxlovid, an oral antiviral treatment that can reduce the severity of a COVID-19 illness.
“I’m pleased to report that a supply has increased. Beginning this Friday, any interested pharmacy in Alberta will be able to order Paxlovid treatments to dispense Paxlovid to eligible Albertans who have met the clinical criteria.”
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Treatment using the oral antiviral must begin five days from the start of symptoms, is only available by prescription and Albertans looking to access the drug must call Health Link to be screened for it.
“While Paxlovid continues to be an option to prevent mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 from progressing to severe disease, it is not a substitute for vaccination,” the health minister said. “Vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent severe cases of COVID-19 and reduce the risks that come with getting infected.”
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On Tuesday, U.S. officials approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for fourth doses for people aged 50-plus.
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Copping said Alberta is waiting on advice before opening up second boosters to populations beyond immunocompromised Albertans.
“We will rely on the expert advice from the National (Advisory) Committee on Immunization as well as our Alberta committee as well.”
Copping said Hinshaw was taking some “much deserved time off” on Wednesday and would be back for next week’s COVID-19 update.
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Entering the sixth wave
With the rising trends in wastewater data and PCR testing, Copping wouldn’t say whether Alberta was entering a sixth wave of the pandemic.
But Dr. Chris Mody, head of the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious disease at the University of Calgary, said the upward wastewater trends points to another wave of the pandemic in the province.
“I think it’s coming for sure,” Mody told Global News. “Wastewater data is showing that the trends are up and there’s no sign of them slowing down.
“We will see a sixth wave.”
Dr. Xiaoli Pang noted those levels in Calgary wastewater have seen a marked increase about three weeks ago, where Edmonton’s levels have been rising for less time than that.
“Since last week we can see gradual increases (in Edmonton),” Pang, a public health molecular virologist at Alberta Precision Labs and University of Alberta lab medicine assistant professor, told Global News.
But the trajectory of this latest increase in wastewater levels – and its translation into cases, hospitalizations, etc. – is still yet to be determined, Pang said.
“These next few weeks is a really key point to see if it’s continually up, really increased very quickly. That will be looked at carefully.”
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Lethbridge and Medicine Hat wastewater RNA levels appear to be following the same trends as Edmonton and Calgary: up.
Dr. Bonita Lee, an associate professor in pediatrics at the University of Alberta, warned against comparing wastewater RNA levels from wave four to wave five, due to the variants that drove the infections.
“Fifth wave is Omicron – a different strain from Delta – and we still need to learn whether Omicron is excreting (into wastewater) differently than Delta,” Lee, also an assistant director for infection prevention and control at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, said.
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“We can never tell you how many people are actually having COVID (from wastewater data) because we don’t have a direct ratio to do that.”
Mody said the most recent hospitalization data showed a downward trend and couldn’t say when hospitalizations were likely to tick up.
“The patients that we are seeing in hospitalization right now, almost all of them are immunocompromised, so vaccinated and immunocompromised,” Mody said. “That’s the type of patient that we’re seeing.”
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“Those that have impaired immunity either because they don’t have a vaccine or because they don’t make a very good response to the vaccine or the response doesn’t last very long. Those are the patients that are going to get severe disease and those are the ones that we’re seeing now in hospital.”
He noted the uptake for third or booster doses of a COVID-19 vaccine weren’t as good as doctors had hoped.
The wastewater levels increases in Alberta’s largest cities follow a national trend, especially in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
The more contagious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which is now the dominant version of the virus in several provinces, coupled with loosened public health measures is driving the increase, experts told Global News.
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With Easter get togethers around the corner, Alberta’s health minister urged personal responsibility in planning events.
“As we move into a position where we’re learning to live with COVID, we’re asking individuals to manage their own risk and be able to take actions accordingly,” Copping said.
“We ask Albertans to assess their own risk, understand what their level of comfort is and then be guided accordingly, as well as go get rapid tests… If you haven’t gotten all your booster shots as you’re eligible for, please do so. And then continue to listen for updates from our offices as we go forward.”
–with files from Morgan Black, Lauren Pullen and Saba Aziz, Global News
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