Everything you need to know about COVID-19 in Alberta on Thursday, Dec. 23

As the proportion of Omicron cases grows higher, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said, if you are feeling symptomatic you probably have COVID-19. 

Alberta now recommending at-home rapid tests for COVID-19

Alberta is implementing visitor restrictions at hospitals and continuing care facilities to limit COVID-19 transmission as the Omicron variant spreads. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The latest COVID-19 numbers: 

  • The Alberta government reported Thursday:   
    • There were 1,625 new COVID cases. 
    • There are 8,359 total active cases. 
    • 318 people with COVID are in hospital. Roughly 60 per cent of those patients are unvaccinated, the province says. There are 64 COVID patients in intensive care. 
    • Since the start of the pandemic, a total of 3,299 Albertans have died of COVID. No new deaths were reported Thursday. 
  • When it comes to the Omicron variant of concern:   
    • The total number of Omicron cases in Alberta has soared to 2,637, and it is now considered to be the dominant strain in the province.
    • Hinshaw says cases of Omicron are doubling every two or three days.
    • More than half the variant cases — 1,583 — are in the Calgary zone.
  • WATCH | What is the Omicron variant? Infectious disease expert Craig Jenne simplifies what the variant is:

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  • 335,047 Albertans have recovered from COVID-19. 
  • Provincewide, the R-value for Nov. 29 to Dec.12 was 0.96, with a confidence interval between 0.92 and 1.01. An R-value below 1.0 means transmission is no longer growing.
  • The R-value for the Edmonton zone is 0.99, and in Calgary it's 0.96. In the rest of Alberta, the rate is 0.93.

  • The latest on restrictions, rapid testing and more:

    • Testing guidelines in the province changed Thursday, said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw in a press conference.
    • The province is now recommending rapid tests for those that have symptoms, instead of lab-based PCR tests, except for some priority groups. 
    • Hinshaw said for those that have gotten a positive rapid test result, "consider that as confirmation that you have COVID-19. Please isolate and notify your close contacts."
    • This will affect the figures reported by the government, but Hinshaw said they will use wastewater surveillance and keep track of people who have risk factors.
    • As the proportion of Omicron cases grows higher, Hinshaw said that if you are feeling symptomatic, you probably have COVID-19. 
    • Hinshaw recommended people scale back their holiday gatherings this week, but acknowledged gatherings of up to 10 people are allowed. "It is prudent to keep gatherings as small as possible," she said.
    • The province said Thursday that any unimmunized staff members who want to return to work may do so, with participation in a temporary testing program
    • This will affect approximately 1,400 full- and part-time staff who are not fully immunized, who have previously been placed on unpaid leave. Testing will be at staff expense. 
    • The governing United Conservative Party is being accused of showing hypocrisy by going ahead with a Christmas party a few hours after the health minister strongly encouraged workplaces to cancel holiday gatherings.   
      • Health Minister Jason Copping had asked workplaces Tuesday afternoon to cancel their holiday social gatherings to align with the province's work from home order, even if their get-togethers were set for venues participating in the vaccine passport program.
      • A few hours later, the UCP held a Christmas reception at Edmonton's Parlour Italian Kitchen and Bar.
      • UCP spokesman Dave Prisco said government officials decided to proceed with the party because the venue was compliant with the Restrictions Exemption Program, Alberta's vaccine passport system, and the health minister had given the advice only a short time before.
      • But NDP House Leader Christina Gray says Albertans are sick of the government not following its own advice to curb the spread of COVID-19.
    • The Omicron variant has prompted several post-secondary institutions across the province to return to online learning for the first few weeks of the winter term.
    • This includes the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, MacEwan University, University of Lethbridge, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and Mount Royal University.
    • Cases of Omicron will rapidly escalate in Alberta in the coming weeks, with new modelling suggesting that the province will surpass 6,000 new cases daily by the end of the year. A new report from the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group suggests that cases of Omicron will explode over the coming four weeks across Canada, stunting previous waves of the pandemic.
    • As a result, Alberta's hospitals could be pushed past the breaking point, said Dean Karlen, a University of Victoria physics professor and member of the independent modelling group.
    • The Alberta government has announced new mandatory measures that take effect Dec. 24:   
      • Venues in the Restrictions Exemption Program that seat more than 1,000 people will be at 50 per cent capacity. For venues with capacity of 500 to 1,000 occupants, 500 people is the limit. No food or drink can be consumed in these venues.
      • Premier Jason Kenney said at a press conference Tuesday these changes will apply to NHL games, as well as the World Junior Tournament set to begin on Boxing Day.
      • Restaurants, pubs and bars will have a maximum table capacity of 10 people. Mingling between tables, and interactive activities like dancing or billiards, are not permitted.
      • Liquor service at the above establishments must stop at 11 p.m., and the establishment must close at 12:30 a.m.
    • Alberta is implementing visitor restrictions at hospitals and continuing care facilities to limit COVID-19 transmission as the Omicron variant spreads.
    • Visitors and designated support people who are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 or have a case of it in their home will not be able to access continuing care or acute-care sites for 14 days from the date of last exposure.
    • Alberta Health Services says it applies even to people who are fully immunized.
    • The Mac's Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament, a 42-year-old tradition that gets underway each Boxing Day in Calgary, has been cancelled this year due to rising cases and new capacity restrictions. The organization tweeted Tuesday refunds for the event will be processed immediately.
    • Alberta has had a restrictions exemption programa voluntary vaccine passport system, in place as of Sept. 20 after suffering through a disastrous fourth wave of COVID-19. A full list of restrictions and exemptions is available on the government's website. 
    • Premier Jason Kenney said on Dec. 15 that the province was loosening its private social gathering restrictions, scrapping the rule that only people from two households can get together indoors.   
      • Social gatherings can now consist of people from any household, but groups must not exceed 10 people. Albertans under the age of 18 do not count in that tally.
      • The requirement that all people at indoor social gatherings be fully vaccinated is also being dropped. 
    • Starting Dec. 17, the Alberta government made free take-home COVID-19 rapid antigen testing kits available for at-home use on a first-come, first-served basis while supplies last:   
      • Alberta has authorized the purchase of 10 million rapid tests, expected to arrive in January.
      • More than 2.5 million rapid tests, or 500,000 rapid test kits, have already been made available.
      • The kits are intended for people without symptoms of COVID-19. Those who do have symptoms should stay home, isolate and book a PCR test through Alberta Health Services.
      • There's a limit of one box per person within 14 days and each box contains five tests, since it takes time for people's bodies to develop enough protein from the virus that causes COVID-19 after being exposed.
      • In Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer, the testing kits are available through participating pharmacies.
      • The province has more than half a million kits available to hand out. 
      • Rapid test kits were to also be made available at more schools and for vulnerable populations.
      • Elsewhere, they were to be available through Alberta Health Services sites.
      • As the rollout began, there were reports of long lineups and kits running out at some locations.

    WATCH: How to perform the rapid antigen test:

    How to use a take home COVID-19 test kit

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    With the province releasing home rapid COVID-19 test kits, Edmonton pharmacist Shivali Sharma shows CBC’s Pippa Reed how to use one properly.

    The latest on vaccines:

    • As of Dec. 23, Alberta placed last of all provinces and territories in terms of the percentage of eligible people (ages five and up) who had received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to CBC's vaccine tracker.   
      • 72.2 per cent of the province's total population — or 76.6 per cent of eligible Albertans (ages five years and older) — have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
      • 78.4 per cent of the province's total population, and 83.3 per cent of those ages five and older, have received at least one dose.
      • That compares with 82.3 per cent of the total population Canada-wide that has received at least one dose of vaccine, and 76.5 per cent of the total population that has been fully vaccinated. Among those eligible across the country, 86.6 per cent have had one dose, and 80.4 per cent are fully vaccinated.

    • Starting Dec. 21, the Alberta government announced that anyone aged 18 and older who received their second COVID-19 vaccine at least five months ago can now book a third dose.
    • Boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be offered to Albertans 18 to 29 years of age due to a slightly increased risk of myocarditis in younger Albertans, especially males, from Moderna — although the government emphasizes that individuals are much more likely to experience myocarditis from COVID-19 infection than the vaccine.

    See which regions are being hit hardest:

    Here is the latest detailed regional breakdown of active cases, as reported by the province on Dec. 23:

    • Calgary zone: 4,665.
    • Edmonton zone: 2,539.
    • Central zone: 460.
    • North zone: 424.
    • South zone: 241.
    • Unknown: 30.

    Here are the latest Alberta COVID-19 stories:

    The latest updates on COVID-19 in Alberta in charts and graphs:

    With files from CBC Sports