Active cases of COVID-19 at record highs in Alberta as Omicron spurs spread

Alberta COVID-19 infections are at record highs as the highly-infectious Omicron variant spreads through the province.

There are now 34,276 active reported cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, although Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday that that number is based on PCR tests and the real total is much higher.

Late last year, Alberta said rapid tests should be used for most people with symptoms and encouraged Albertans to use rapid tests over a PCR test. Those in high priority settings such as health care should still get a PCR test. 

The province is preparing to see hospitalizations rise in the coming weeks, Kenney told a news conference.

Emerging data from other jurisdictions indicates Omicron may not hit intensive care units as Delta did but will likely impact other areas of the health-care system in emergency wards and ambulatory care, Kenney said.

“We need to be sure we are addressing the kind of pressure that this variant will impose,” he said.

The premier also called on the federal government to authorize the use of Pfizer’s antiviral medication Paxlovid, aimed at treating mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

Latest numbers

Over the holidays, the province cut back on reporting COVID-19 information to the public.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, provided daily case counts for the preceding four days:

  • Dec. 31: 4,570 new cases on 12,700 tests.
  • Jan. 1: 3,323 new cases on 9,450 tests.
  • Jan. 2: 2,059 new cases on 7,100 tests.
  • Jan. 3: 3,013 new cases on 8,200 tests.

Positivity rates fluctuated between 28 and 36 per cent, Hinshaw said — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, 436 were in hospital, including 61 in ICU.

Twelve more deaths have been reported since Dec. 28, including a child in the age range of 5-9 years old. The child had a complex medical condition, Hinshaw said.

Hinshaw said the last two years have been challenging but Albertans must now make changes to prevent the spread of the new variant.

“Omicron has arrived as a perfect storm of increased transmissibility, immune escape from both previous infection and two doses of vaccine, and enough early signs of reduced severity at an individual level to be tempting to not take seriously,” she said, pointing east to Ontario where sheer case volumes mean hospitalizations are rising.

“Ontario is only a little more than a week ahead of us.”

Provincial response

The wildfire spread of Omicron has pushed the province to cut back on lab-based testing, shorten the isolation period for infected Albertans, and expand third dose vaccinations while also putting a return to the classroom for K-12 students in limbo.

People in Alberta with at least two doses of vaccine who test positive for COVID-19 will now need to isolate for only five days instead of 10. 

The change went into effect Monday in a bid to ease the impact of the new variant on the workforce. Some employers providing critical public services, such as healthcare, will be provided exemptions. The details of how those exemptions will be awarded are expected to be released Tuesday. 

On Thursday, the province announced it was delaying the reopening of schools province-wide. 

Winter break for K-12 students has been extended to Jan. 10. January diploma exams were also cancelled. The delay will also be accompanied by the distribution of 8.6 million at-home rapid tests and medical grade masks.

Kenney said Tuesday the government is “very determined” to have schools return to in-class instruction by Jan. 10.

The COVID-19 cabinet committee is expected to meet Wednesday.

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