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Everything you need to know about COVID-19 in Alberta on Thursday, Jan. 20

Eight more Albertans have died from COVID-19 as the number of hospital patients with COVID-19 reaches its highest point since the pandemic began.

1,131 patients with COVID are in Alberta hospitals

Health-care workers put on personal protective equipment before testing at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre in Toronto on April 7, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Daily case counts have never been perfect, but at this point in the Omicron-driven wave, they're a deeply flawed metric. Throughout the pandemic, the case counts have been based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing done by provincial bodies like Alberta Health Services, but those testing protocols have shifted to prioritize high-priority groups and people in higher risk settings, like health-care workers. So there are likely to be thousands of cases going untested, or tested but not reported, since there is no system for cataloguing at-home rapid antigen tests. 

As a result, CBC News will de-emphasize case counts in our coverage, in favour of data and metrics that experts now say are more illuminating — such as COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, which help us understand Omicron's impact on the health-care system and severity of illness it causes, as well as the testing positivity rate, which if it starts to level out and come down could indicate the wave has peaked.


    The latest numbers:

    • The following numbers were released Jan. 20:
    • Hospitalizations:   
           
      • There were 1,131 people with COVID in Alberta hospitals on Jan. 20, the highest seen so far during the pandemic. A week earlier, on Jan. 13, there were 786 infected patients in hospital.
      •    
      • There were 108 people with COVID in intensive care, compared with 79 on Jan. 13.
      •    
      • As of Jan. 20, provincial ICU capacity (including additional surge beds) was at 82 per cent. Without the additional surge spaces, provincial ICU capacity would be at 114 per cent.
      •    
      • On Jan. 20, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that of the 1,131 people in hospital with COVID, about four per cent are under the age of 18. She said she hasn't seen any children who have had at least one dose of vaccine in hospital for COVID.
      •    
      • On Jan. 17, Hinshaw said AHS will begin reporting the proportion of people admitted to hospitals because of COVID-19 as compared to those who are admitted because of other causes but still have the disease, Hinshaw said.
      •    
      • As of Thursday, 55.8 per cent of new non-ICU hospital admissions are due to COVID; 44.2 per cent of admissions were cases where COVID was not a factor or where cause of admission could not be determined. 
      •    
      • Of ICU admissions, 70.8 per cent are due to COVID and 29.2 per cent are incidental infections or unclear.
      •    
      • Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday that Alberta hospitals are operating at 89 per cent of total capacity.
      •    
      • The province announced Jan. 20 it is expanding bed capacity for Omicron patients. Existing beds are being allocated for COVID-19 care, and additional beds are being opened in some locations as needed.
      •    
    • Positivity rates:    
           
      • Alberta's positivity rate on Jan. 20 was around 33 per cent. A week ago, that was at 41 per cent.
      •    
      • The province reported eight more COVID deaths on Jan. 20. They were people between the ages of 56 and 93. A total of 3,421 Albertans have died of COVID-19. 
      •    
      • Case counts:     
               
        • 3,527 new cases were reported to Alberta Health out of 11,041 tests. 
        •      
        • Alberta has 64,519 active cases of COVID-19.
        •      
        • Hinshaw said the true figure is likely 10 times that number given that high caseloads have overwhelmed the ability of the system to test outside high-priority groups.
        •      
      •    

    Acute care outbreaks:

    • As of Jan. 19, there are outbreaks at 24 AHS and Covenant Health acute care facilities across the province. 
    • There are four hospitals in the North zone, eight hospitals in the Edmonton zone, four hospitals in the Central zone, six in the Calgary zone and two in the South zone affected. 
    • Drumheller Health Centre, one of the hospitals affected, has temporarily postponed inpatient surgical procedures due to the outbreak at the centre, AHS said Jan. 11. Day surgeries will continue as scheduled.

    School reopenings:

    • The University of Calgary announced on Jan. 14 that it is extending online classes until Feb. 19, with a return to in-person classes after Reading Week, beginning on Feb. 28.
    • The University of Alberta is also delaying its return to in-person activities until Feb. 28.
    • Students in Alberta headed back to class on Jan. 10. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits and medical-grade masks will be delivered to students and parents over the next few days.
    • The winter break for K-Grade 12 students was extended to Jan. 10 as COVID-19 case numbers surged.
    • Because of the disruption to learning, January diploma exams have been cancelled.
    • Students in grades 4 to 9 will be able to access free, prerecorded, online tutoring resources starting this week to help them catch up on skills and learning they may have missed.
    • Later this year, that tutoring will be expanded to more subjects and will include live tutoring. 
    • School authorities will continue to be able to shift classes or grades to at-home learning for short periods of time to address outbreaks. 
    • The Calgary Board of Education says it expects staffing shortages to persist as the fifth wave continues. On Jan. 18, more than 1,200 staff were absent, the board said. The number of absences is a 50 per cent increase over the previous three-year average for this point in time, the board said. Edmonton Public Schools reported more than 900 absences on Jan. 18. The board has hired an additional 29 temporary contract teachers to help cover off absences. 

    Testing:

    • Alberta Health Services says 500 of 1,400 unvaccinated staff and physicians are making their way back into hospitals and healthcare settings after opting into the province's temporary frequent COVID-19 testing program. The province said it made the change earlier this month to ensure it could meet the increased demand on the healthcare system brought on by a surge in Omicron variant cases. 
    • Health Minister Jason Copping said on Jan. 12 only 500,000 of the 16 million rapid antigen tests promised by Ottawa have arrived and that the balance of the 10 million from private suppliers is also tied up in delays and global supply chain bottlenecks.
    • Many Albertans have been struggling in the past two weeks to get their hands on rapid tests. The tests were first available on a widespread basis before the holidays and Albertans can access them for free on a first-come, first-serve basis through participating pharmacies and AHS locations.
    • Copping said on Jan. 20 that between this week and next, nine million tests are expected to arrive in Alberta.
    • Effective Jan. 10, PCR tests are available only for select groups, which includes health-care workers, correctional facility staff and returning international travellers — in order to screen for new variants. Previously, lab-based PCR tests were also available to those who did not have access to rapid tests.
    • Hinshaw says with the positivity rate near 40 per cent, transmission is higher than it's ever been before and the province likely has 10 times or more COVID-19 cases than are being diagnosed through PCR tests.

    Wastewater monitoring:

    • As the Alberta government scales back on widespread PCR testing to focus on those in high-priority settings, the province is now relying on wastewater surveillance more than ever before to track the prevalence of COVID-19 in Alberta.
    • The province's wastewater — and the amount of infection in it — has been monitored for two years by a group of 23 researchers in a joint project with the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.
    • The data is updated publicly three times per week.
    • It depicts the amount of SARS-CoV-2 RNA — the virus that causes COVID-19 — that's in the province's wastewater.
    • The virus is shed in peoples' feces before symptoms arise, so values in the data associate strongest with cases occurring six days after the samples are collected.
    •  Dr. Michael Parkins, one of the research leads, said on Jan. 7 that it's important not to overinterpret individual data points, such as apparent drops in infection, but rather understand trends over time. 
    • "Our data trends up, up, up.... I don't think we've seen the peak yet," he said.
    • Kenney said Jan. 20 that wastewater analysis shows early indications that Alberta has reached a peak in COVID-19 infections, with declining numbers in 15 of 19 communities under study. He said that because of the lag between infection and hospitalization, hospitalizations have not yet peaked.

    Isolation times:

    • As of Jan. 3, people with at least two doses of vaccine who test positive for COVID-19 need to isolate for only five days instead of 10.    
           
      • If symptoms continue past five days, fully vaccinated people must continue to isolate until feeling better.
      •    
      • If they're symptom free after five days, they must wear a mask around others at all times when they're outside their home.
      •    
      • The change does not apply to people who aren't fully vaccinated, who must continue to isolate for 10 days or until their symptoms end, whichever is longer.
      •    
      • Health Minister Jason Copping said the change followed evidence that suggests fully immunized people have shorter infectious periods. 
      •    
      • This change also follows the approach taken by Ontario and some other provinces, as well as the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States, Copping said.
      •    
      • Exceptions will be provided for workplaces where disruption of service for 24 hours or more would be harmful to the public, and where there is no other way to continue the service except by bringing workers back before their isolation period has ended, Copping said. 
      •    
      • In these circumstances, additional public health measures will be required. For example, Copping said returning workers would not be allowed to remove their masks when in the same room as anyone else at any time.
      •    

    Health restrictions:

    • 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. He 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.
    • The leaders of Alberta's largest public and private sector unions called in an open letter on Jan. 11 for drastic lockdown measures immediately to fight the spiralling COVID-19 Omicron variant. But a spokesperson Kenney says the United Conservative government is following and acting on the scientific data and that such restrictions are not being considered.
    • New public health restrictions in Alberta took effect on Dec. 24. They include:   
           
      • Venues in the Restrictions Exemption Program that seat more than 1,000 people are to 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.
      •    
      • Restaurants, pubs and bars are to have a maximum table capacity of 10 people. Mingling between tables and interactive activities like dancing or billiards are not permitted.
      •    
    • The tightened restrictions came after Kenney loosened private social gathering restrictions on Dec. 15, scrapping the rule that only people from two households can get together indoors. He said social gatherings could consist of people from any household, but shouldn't exceed 10 people (not counting those under age 18). He also dropped the requirement that everyone at indoor social gatherings be fully vaccinated.
    • Kenney said Jan. 20 that he won't consider lifting current measures until there is a "sustained decline in hospital pressure."
    • 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. 

    Vaccinations:

    • As of Jan. 20, 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.   
           
      • 73.1 per cent of the province's total population — or 76.8 per cent of eligible Albertans (ages five years and older) — have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to CBC's vaccine tracker. 
      •    
      • 79.8 per cent of the province's total population, and 83.5 per cent of those ages five and older, have received at least one dose.
      •    
    • As of Jan. 20, some immunocompromised people will have access to a fourth dose of the vaccine, including transplant recipients and those receiving chemotherapy. 
    • The province said as of Jan. 3, more than one million people have had a booster shot. But an additional two million Albertans have received their first two doses and are eligible for a booster. Anyone aged 18 and older who received their second COVID-19 vaccine at least five months ago is being urged to book a booster dose.

    Which regions are being hit hardest:

    Here is the latest detailed regional breakdown of active cases, as reported by the province on Jan. 20:

    • Calgary zone: 31,226. 
    • Edmonton zone: 22,659.
    • Central zone: 4,104.
    • North zone: 2,969.
    • South zone: 2,937.
    • Unknown: 624.

    COVID in Alberta in charts and graphs:









    Here are the latest Alberta COVID-19 stories:

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