Alberta health officials must determine ‘largest factor’ fuelling new COVID-19 cases to slow spread: doctor

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alberta, so too does the number of cases that have an unknown source of exposure — meaning officials can’t pinpoint where the person came in contact with the novel coronavirus.

From Oct. 27 to Nov. 2, 67 per cent of the new cases confirmed had an unknown source, according to the Alberta Health website.

And of the province’s 6,110 active cases reported Tuesday, 53 per cent of those also had an unknown exposure, the website showed. No new data on Wednesday’s causes of exposure were available as of time of publishing on Wednesday.

Read more: Alberta confirms 515 new cases of COVID-19, 5 additional deaths Wednesday

According to chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the unknown exposure percentage of active cases that Alberta Health is working with is significantly lower, at roughly 40 per cent. She said Wednesday that’s because a public health investigation, including contact tracing, hasn’t happened yet, adding that in “many of those cases, we will be able to determine the source.”

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Hinshaw called the number of cases where officials don’t know where the virus came from is “concerning.”

“We do know what the trends are in our own data and those trends match the transmission issues that we’re seeing in other provinces, which are social gatherings — they are times when people are spending time together in close contact, not wearing masks, not using distancing.

“The issues happen when individuals perhaps are not staying home when they’re symptomatic.”

Click to play video 'Why is Alberta not cracking down on unknown sources of COVID-19 spread?' Why is Alberta not cracking down on unknown sources of COVID-19 spread?

Why is Alberta not cracking down on unknown sources of COVID-19 spread?

Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, infectious disease physician and virologist at the University of Calgary, said the high number of cases with unknown sources makes for a “higher risk for potentially contracting the virus from various day-to-day activities.”

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“It really does make it hard to implement the measures that would be necessary to quell that fire,” she said.

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“The thing is, if we know it’s only occurring in groups, we can focus on trying to encourage people to stop having larger group gatherings.

If it’s only occurring in schools, then we can revisit what we’re doing at that. But that’s not the case.”

More virus in community leads to ‘increased risk for everybody’

The Alberta government last month introduced new mandatory restrictions on social gatherings in Calgary and Edmonton, limiting them to 15 people, however, it takes about two weeks to see whether those new measures have had an impact.

Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday if the “significant wave” in cases doesn’t slow down, “they will pose a very serious challenge to the ability of our health care system to cope.”

“If the current trends continue, we’re going to have to move more people out of acute care beds, delay more surgeries and those actions will have negative downstream health consequences which we want to avoid,” Kenney said.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta hotels, event venues not exempt from 15-person gathering limit

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Meier-Stephenson said without knowing whether it’s truly gatherings that are causing the spikes in case numbers, it’s hard to know whether the restrictions will work and whether more robust ones should be enforced.

“The challenge for public health is to identify: what is the largest factor that’s contributing to these numbers?”

“The fact that we have more people with the virus in the community means… [for] every extra person, there’s that extra potential for another surface, another interaction to include the virus in there,” she said. “So it does it does make it to an increased risk for everybody.”

Read more: COVID-19: Triple-layer masks now recommended, what does that mean for Albertans?

Meier-Stephenson said people need to get back to the basics of preventative health measures including hand-washing, wearing masks and most importantly, staying home when feeling sick and keeping groups small.

“I’m certain that any of us could could think back in the past several days or weeks — are there times when we let our guard down, we let things slip?” she said.

“We need to revisit that and and really pay attention to kind of what we’re doing with each of these measures.”

Meier-Stephenson admitted it’s “hard to keep that message at that intensity for so long,” adding that many people are feeling fatigued about the precautions and pandemic overall.

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