Alberta officials spoke on Wednesday of avoiding the mistakes of COVID-19 waves past, while justifying a relaxation of public health orders for the holiday season while Omicron cases tick up because of higher vaccination rates and a desire to be in line with other provinces.
At a morning news conference, Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Jason Copping announced rapid COVID-19 test kits would soon be handed out for free, an expansion in eligibility for vaccine boosters, and a loosening of rules on private indoor gatherings to a maximum of 10 adults, regardless of vaccination status.
But when Alberta’s top doctor took the podium after Kenney and Copping, she spoke only of the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron strain.
“I know that there is no risk-free option in front of us and the impacts of restrictions are real,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“I also know that we face a very real risk of experiencing a significant fifth wave with this new variant that could be worse than previous waves in terms of overall impact on our health system due to sheer volume of cases. We simply don’t know yet.”
‘TIME TO GO WHERE THE REST OF CANADA IS’: KENNEY
According to most recent data published Tuesday, the province has a little more than 4,000 active cases and 360-some COVID-19 hospitalizations.
So far, it has confirmed 50 Omicron infections.
However, Hinshaw reminded Albertans, the variant is the third COVID-19 mutation to emerge in a significant way in the past year.
“So we have seen what can happen with a new and more infectious version of the virus. Each time, we had reached a relatively successful point in dealing with the previous version of the virus, and each time the new variant meant we had to change our assumptions and our approach,” she told Albertans.
“We must learn from our past.”
The last time Alberta relaxed its public health orders was in July when it turned off almost all rules for the summer. Then, Hinshaw called it time to transition to an endemic response. Alberta’s fourth wave peaked weeks later, eventually earning the public an apology from both Hinshaw and Kenney for premature action.
“As we all know, that move was too early and the fourth wave had a devastating impact on our health-care system,” Hinshaw said again on Wednesday.
“I cannot overstate the importance of having learned from that experience and the need to be extremely cautious as we learn more about the Omicron variant.”
When asked why, then, the province would be relaxing gathering limits, including those which had previously prohibited unvaccinated people from gathering, Kenney argued the changes were moderate and left Alberta with some of the most stringent restrictions across Canada.
“At the same time, we have to be mindful after 21 months of this, of the willingness of the public to actually comply with the rules. Rules on paper that are not observed by the public are meaningless, pointless, and just undermine confidence in the public health measures,” he told media.
“If there’s one small thing we can do that takes away another reason for division, about families arguing about having the unvaccinated aunt over for Christmas dinner, for example … we think it’s appropriate at this time to go to where the rest of Canada is.”
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT OMICRON
According to Alberta’s top doctor, the Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta, which had previously ranked as the fastest-spreading mutation.
Hinshaw also said early evidence suggests it causes more break-through infections in people previously infected and fully immunized, but may be less likely to cause severe outcomes than any of its predecessors.
That means Omicron has the potential to impact Alberta’s hospital system significantly, Hinshaw explained.
“With a much larger number of people being infected much more quickly, the overall impact on ICUs is still rising in other parts of the world where Omicron is spreading fast.”
Kenney even went so far as to predict Omicron would one day be Alberta’s dominant COVID-19 strain.
Both encouraged everyone eligible for vaccines and boosters to get the first shot available to them.
According to Hinshaw, Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines both offer a high level of protection against Omicron with the latter suggesting a “slightly higher level of effectiveness.”
She also offered the following the tips for safe holiday gatherings:
- Limit the number of gatherings you attend and host.
- Keep gathering sizes small.
- Plan to gather outside.
- Encourage as many attendees as possible to be vaccinated.
- Wear masks when you’re not eating or drinking.
- Space seating.
- Increase indoor air ventilation.
- Have attendees most vulnerable to illness wear a medical mask.
- Do not attend or host a gathering if you are feeling unwell.
- Pick up your free kit of five COVID-19 rapid tests. Their recommended usage is twice per week, 72 hours apart, by asymptomatic people.
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