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COVID-19 upswing expected as Albertans wait for latest case counts, booster rollout plan

Experts say Albertans can expect another uptick in COVID-19 cases this fall and calls are emerging for swift action.

Other jurisdictions are already seeing increases and officials announced this week that Canada’s first case of the new variant, BA.2.86, has been identified in British Columbia.

“We need to be vigilant. We need to keep surveillance up,” said Craig Jenne, professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

“Both in the U.S. and other places in the world this new variant is leading to increased hospitalizations. And the big question is, is it causing more severe disease or are more people getting infected and then a small percentage are requiring hospitalization.”

While Jenne was already expecting Alberta’s COVID numbers would rise as people move indoors and children return to school this fall, he said the detection of the highly mutated variant in B.C. could lead to more rapid spread.

“This variant does lead to an increased strain on the health-care system. So we need to be doing what we can to avoid that spike in cases.”

While Jenne isn’t predicting COVID will surge to crisis levels seen earlier in the pandemic, he said the new variant will likely be in Alberta soon, if it isn’t already, and could spread province-wide by late fall.

No new data

The emergence of this latest variant in Canada comes at a time when Albertans are largely in the dark about the current COVID situation.

The provincial website indicated COVID-19 data would be updated on Wednesday, for the first time in more than a month. But that didn’t happen.

In a statement, the press secretary for health Minister Adriana LaGrange said the government is changing how it presents the data to “more accurately depict the current situation.”

“We are working to expand the data and dashboard to include other respiratory diseases such as RSV and influenza,” Charlotte Taillon said.

It is unclear when the data will be available.

“An update will be posted as soon as this work is completed,” Taillon said.

Craig Jenne is standing in front of trees and looking off camera
Craig Jenne is a professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Action needed, Opposition says

In a letter to the health minister on Wednesday the Alberta NDP called on the Alberta government to issue a “broad and comprehensive” COVID-19 vaccination plan as quickly as possible.

“We should be seeing a proactive approach from the government. So far we have seen a fair bit of silence,” health critic for primary and rural care, David Shepherd, said in an interview with CBC News.

“We’d like to know when the government of Alberta intends to begin to roll out those vaccinations and how they intend to make them available.”

The letter, signed by both Shepherd and education critic, Rakhi Pancholi, also asks the government to improve access for children, to both COVID-19 boosters and flu shots, by offering them in schools.

Last fall, a trio of respiratory illnesses — influenza, RSV and COVID-19 — overwhelmed Alberta’s pediatric hospitals.

And Shepherd wants to see updated COVID data released as quickly as possible.

“We are encouraging [the minister] to provide that transparency to Albertans, provide a clear public health plan for this fall.”

There are no new details from the provincial government on its COVID booster rollout plan.

In response to inquiries from CBC News, Taillon said the government is aware of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s recommendations for a fall COVID booster program. The updated guidance was issued in July.

“We will work with the Alberta Advisory Committee on Immunization and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health to determine the best approach for implementing the recommendations for Albertans,” Taillon said.

Meanwhile Jenne said new variant-specific vaccine formulations, expected through the fall rollout, will be key to keeping the latest variant in check.

“So we will be able to get boosters that are more closely aligned with the variants in the community. It may not be an exact match but it will be a close enough match still to afford really good protection,” he said.

“The big variables I think are not necessarily the virus … but when when will the vaccine be available, how will it be distributed and, ultimately, the biggest question of all is what would uptake look like?”

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