COVID-19 live updates: 6,163 new cases reported Friday; Federal modelling shows surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations; Alberta post-secondaries extend online learning through February; Alphonso Davies out with myocarditis

Canadian truckers will remain exempted from COVID-19 vaccine requirements at the international border, but unvaccinated drivers from the United States will be turned back starting Jan. 15, a spokesperson at the Canada Border Services Agency said on Wednesday.

Canadian truck drivers arriving at the international border will also remain exempt from pre-arrival, arrival and post-arrival testing and quarantine requirements, Rebecca Purdy, the agency’s spokesperson, said.

The decision is a change in policy to the government’s decision from November, when it asked all truck drivers to be vaccinated by Jan. 15, and from earlier this week when it asked Canadian drivers to quarantine for 14 days.

More than two-thirds of the C$650 billion ($511 billion) in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads.

Canada’s health minister said regulators are working hard to review data on a treatment for COVID-19 already in use in the United States and preparing in advance to get the pills to patients.

Several provincial premiers have called on the government to approve Paxlovid, a treatment for COVID-19 developed by Pfizer which has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization for people provided they receive the drug within five days of their first symptoms.

A full treatment course of the drug runs for five days, with two pills taken each day.

Drug maker Merck has a similar drug called molnupiravir, which has also been shown to reduce hospitalizations, though not as significantly as Pfizer’s pill. Both companies stress their drug is not a substitute for vaccination, but say it can reduce the likelihood that someone who gets the virus will end up in hospital.

Alberta’s health-care and judicial systems have large backlogs. The Edmonton Journal of Jan. 11, reported that Quebec is working on a new health-care tax for the unvaccinated in response to a backlog in that province, but that Alberta Premier Kenney is not considering a similar tax.

He apparently considers it a threat to the principle of universal health care. In an amazing reversal of logic, his government is preparing legislation to deny Albertans the right of being presumed innocent in traffic court and imposing a “fee” (tax) in order to defend oneself. Is one principle more valid than the other?

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Wednesday

Alberta reports record-breaking 6,789 news COVID-19 cases and 15 deaths Wednesday

Hamdi Issawi

The COVID-19 virus.
The COVID-19 virus. Photo by iStockphoto /Getty Images

Alberta broke another record for the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in one day as hospitalizations and deaths continue to climb.

On Wednesday, the province identified 6,789 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of active cases in Alberta to 61,229, which works out to 2,616 more cases than the day before.

Alberta also reported 748 patients hospitalized with the disease — 40 more than reported Tuesday — including 82 in intensive care while another 15 people died of COVID-19, raising the province’s death toll to 3,367.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, stressed the importance of reserving emergency room visits for urgent medical treatment while noting that exposure to an ER does not qualify someone for a PCR test under new provincial rules.

With the province’s test positivity rate hovering near 40 per cent, Hinshaw said Albertans should assume that the province is seeing at least 10 times more cases than it’s identifying with PCR tests, which have also been limited to certain groups due to increased strain on diagnostic capacity caused by spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

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Wednesday

Edmonton school boards continue to see increase in staff, student absences

Anna Junker

Students at Austin O’Brien High School go back to school on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, after their Christmas break was extended by a week due to the Omicron virus.
Students at Austin O’Brien High School go back to school on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, after their Christmas break was extended by a week due to the Omicron virus. Photo by Greg Southam /Postmedia

More than 1,000 teachers were absent Wednesday morning as Edmonton’s school boards grapple with the first week back to school during the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmonton Public Schools reported 525 teacher absences, up 31 from the previous day, spokeswoman Megan Normandeau said in a statement. However, she noted the numbers reflect all staff absences, not just those due to COVID-19 or general illness.

Twenty-seven of those absences were unfilled.

“This month, our division has hired an additional 29 temporary contract teachers to help fill emergent teacher jobs that are unfilled from the standard supply teacher pool,” Normandeau said.

“These 29 teachers have been deployed today to cover many of the 27 unfilled positions.”

There were also 297 absences among educational assistants, an increase of 35. Of those, 160 absences went unfilled.

“It is important to note that these numbers fluctuate throughout the day — absences unfilled this morning may have been filled for the afternoon,” Normandeau said.

“Any staff absences that are unfilled by supply staff would be managed internally at the school level.”

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Wednesday

Kenney says Alberta won’t follow Quebec plan to levy fee on COVID-19 unvaccinated

The Canadian Press

Premier Jason Kenney updates Alberta’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Photo by Gavin Young / Postmedia.
Premier Jason Kenney updates Alberta’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Photo by Gavin Young / Postmedia. SunMedia

Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta will not be following Quebec’s plan to impose a financial penalty on those who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Kenney says data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system than the vaccinated, but making them pay extra would not be fair.

“If we go down that road, we are completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care, which is why Alberta absolutely will not follow the decision of Quebec,” Kenney said Tuesday night in a Facebook town-hall meeting.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault had announced earlier in the day that he plans to make unvaccinated adult residents pay a “significant” financial penalty, given that they are occupying a disproportionate number of beds in hospitals.

Kenney conceded the unvaccinated are taking up far more hospital and intensive care beds, which has led to a domino effect of cancelled surgeries as health workers are reassigned to deal with the pandemic.

But he said levying a fee would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment or charging a high-risk skier for being injured and airlifted out of the back country.

“There is a larger and deeper principle here, which is we have a universal health-care system,” the premier said.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are, what your medical condition is, how wealthy you are, or what life choices you’ve made. You are guaranteed access to our health-care system, free of cost, for medically necessary services.”

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Wednesday

Edmonton transit service temporarily cuts more than 330 weekday trips in response to driver shortage caused by COVID-19 spread

Dustin Cook

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Edmonton’s transit service is temporarily cutting more than 330 weekday trips across many routes as a result of driver shortages due to the rising spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The City of Edmonton announced the immediate changes adjustments Wednesday afternoon, just a day after the local transit union told Postmedia that not all the shifts were being filled and some trips were missed as a result. The city was trying to avoid service impacts by allocating overtime work to drivers.

In its last update Friday the city said there were 28 active cases of COVID-19 among transit operators, of which there are 1,700, but didn’t have updated numbers of those in isolation or off for other reasons.

The cut trips, across 63 routes, amount to about two per cent of the city’s bus service and were targeted on routes that have high-frequency service to minimize impact to riders as much as possible. Transit branch manager Carrie Hotton-MacDonald said weekend, LRT, on demand, DATS and regional service would continue as normal without any changes.

“The health and safety of our riders and staff remain our top priority and we understand changes to bus service may create challenges for some riders. This is top of mind and we are working to minimize any disruption to riders as much as possible,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the service closely and we thank riders for their patience and understanding.”

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Wednesday

More than 80 continuing care homes in Calgary zone on Alberta outbreak list

Dylan Short, Calgary

A caregiver is seen leaving the Carewest Royal Park community in the SW. Wednesday, January 12, 2022.
A caregiver is seen leaving the Carewest Royal Park community in the SW. Wednesday, January 12, 2022. Photo by Brendan Miller/Postmedia

More than 80 continuing-care homes in the Calgary region are currently in COVID-19 outbreak protocols as the Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly across Alberta.

The provincial outbreak list showed 31 long-term care homes and 52 supportive-living facilities listed in the Calgary zone as of Tuesday. Outbreaks are publicly reported when there are two or more cases linked to a facility.

Generations Calgary is among the long-term care centres on the list. Executive director Cindy Simpson said four staff members are isolating, but there is no staffing shortage.

“We’re following all the Alberta Health Services guidelines. We have gone back to the two designated support persons to visit, just to try and limit the number of people on the site,” said Simpson. “We are rapid testing our staff regularly, which has been the way we’ve detected most of our cases.”

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Wednesday

Student with health issues kept home after Calgary public school board refuses HEPA filter amid Omicron surges

Eva Ferguson, Calgary

Emiko Watanabe, 6, poses with her brother Ryan, 8, in a recent family photo. Ryan is very high needs, with severe allergies. Their doctor says he needs a HEPA filter in the classroom.
Emiko Watanabe, 6, poses with her brother Ryan, 8, in a recent family photo. Ryan is very high needs, with severe allergies. Their doctor says he needs a HEPA filter in the classroom. Photo by family photo

The mother of a student with complex medical needs and at risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 has been unable to convince public school officials to put a HEPA filter in his classroom.

And now, as cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant surge across the province and through school communities, Fuyo Watanabe is choosing to keep her son at home for fear he could become very sick.

“Families with disabled children, we’ve been doing all of this for a long time, using hand sanitizer, doing everything we can to make sure our kids don’t get sick,” she said.

“But this situation is just too much. It’s just not acceptable.”

Watanabe’s eight-year-old son Ryan attends Grade 3 at Emily Follensbee School, a unique Calgary Board of Education program for high-needs students, many of whom have complex medical issues. Ryan is deaf, blind, confined to a wheelchair and has several other health issues, including severe allergies that can impact his lungs and respiratory system.

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Wednesday

Quebec sees thousands sign up for first shot of COVID-19 vaccine as tax threat looms

Lynn Chaya, National Post

After plans to tax the unvaxxed were revealed on Tuesday by Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, more than 7,000 people registered to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine dose since the announcement 24 hours ago.

“About 5K appointments were taken on January 10 and 7K yesterday, our record for several days,” Dubé tweeted this morning.

“107K doses administered yesterday,” he adds. “It’s encouraging!”

Dubé’s controversial announcement was echoed by Quebec Premier François Legault on the same day, stating “significant” penalties for those refusing vaccination for non-medical reasons.

Legault argues that Quebecers shouldn’t have suffer the consequences of a burdened health care network due to those choosing not to be vaccinated.

“It’s a question of equity because right now, these people are putting a very important burden on our health care network and I think it’s normal that the majority of the population is asking that there be a consequence,” he said.

The Premier shared a tweet depicting a graph by the Canadian Institute for Health Information explaining the cost of a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit.

“A COVID patient costs an average of $50K in intensive care,” the tweet said. “$43K more than a patient with heart problems.”

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Wednesday

Alberta’s restock of COVID-19 rapid tests to be delayed

Kellen Taniguchi

COVID-19 rapid test at her work in Calgary, Alberta on March 1, 2021.
COVID-19 rapid test at her work in Calgary, Alberta on March 1, 2021. Photo by Leah Hennel /AHS

The expected restock of rapid COVID-19 antigen test kits in Alberta has been delayed by the federal government and manufacturers, says the province’s top doctor.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw did not mention a specific reason for the delay or when the tests are expected to arrive and be distributed across Alberta when she made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday evening.

A Jan. 7 update on Alberta Blue Cross’ website said there are no rapid tests available at local pharmacies and Alberta Health has advised that additional supplies of rapid testing kits should be available to ship to pharmacies the week of Jan. 17. The site will be updated once more test kits become available.

The absence of rapid test kits in the province comes at a time where PCR testing capacity is overwhelmed, as Hinshaw announced further reduction of the list of people eligible for free PCR testing on Monday.

Alberta is now limiting PCR testing to those who live and work in high-risk settings, such as continuing care residents and health-care workers, as the Omicron variant continues to spread. The recommendation has been for the majority of Albertans to use rapid tests.

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Wednesday

‘We’ve never seen this kind of transmission before’: Omicron cases dwarf official reports across Canada

Tyler Dawson, National Post

Alberta Health Services staff conduct drive-through COVID-19 tests at the Richmond Road testing site in Calgary on December 30, 2021. Gavin Young/Postmedia
Alberta Health Services staff conduct drive-through COVID-19 tests at the Richmond Road testing site in Calgary on December 30, 2021. Gavin Young/Postmedia

With Omicron cases skyrocketing across Canada, figures from Alberta suggest that the official numbers, rolled out in data sheets and at press conferences, don’t capture the full extent of the fifth wave.

On Monday afternoon, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said that there are roughly 57,000 active COVID-19 cases in the province.

“We’ve never seen this kind of transmission before,” said Hinshaw, adding that anywhere you go, someone is likely to have COVID-19. “We can’t stop this, but we still can slow the spread.”

The actual figure for active cases in Alberta could be at least 10 times higher, Hinshaw said, shedding light on the extent to which Omicron is spreading, undocumented by the strained testing system.

“It’s very clear with a 40 per cent positivity rate, transmission is higher than it’s ever been before and we should assume that, at minimum, we’re seeing about 10 times or more the number of cases than we’re diagnosing through PCR,” Hinshaw said.

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