Some experts urging caution as Alberta sees 170 COVID-related deaths in 2 weeks

Alberta continues to routinely report daily COVID-19 related deaths in the double digits even as the Alberta government publicly muses about lifting widespread public health restrictions later this month.

14 more COVID-19 related deaths reported Wednesday

Health care workers in masks and face shields care for a patient in the ICU
Healthcare workers provide care for a COVID-19 patient in an Alberta ICU. (Alberta Health Services)

Alberta continues to routinely report daily COVID-19 related deaths in the double digits even as the Alberta government publicly muses about lifting widespread public health restrictions later this month.

In the last two weeks alone — between Jan. 18 and Feb. 1 — 170 people, ranging in ages from their 20s to 100s, have died.

Fourteen COVID-related deaths were reported on Wednesday, bringing the total number of Albertans who've died through the pandemic to 3,593.

And experts say the trend will likely continue for the next couple of weeks.

"This is just a continuing sad situation with regards to the pandemic — that two years in we are still seeing significant loss of life," said Craig Jenne, associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious disease at the University of Calgary, in an interview on Tuesday.

He worries many Albertans have become desensitized to the situation.

"We have lost more people in one week than we have in the worst flu season over the last six or seven years. So it really hammers home that this is not a mild infection, that Omicron is not less dangerous, and that tragically we're still losing our neighbours, our friends and our community members."

Craig Jenne is an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

The province's lagging vaccination rates are a key driver, according to Jenne. Just under 79 per cent of eligible Albertans, ages five and up, have at least two doses.

"Unfortunately, here in Alberta we have the largest percentage of unvaccinated Canadians out of any province and that represents a significant population at risk of adverse outcomes and severe disease here," he said.

When you factor in the proportion of Albertans who are vaccinated versus unvaccinated, the death rate for all age groups is much higher for those who are unvaccinated than it is for those who've had two or three doses.

According to Alberta Health statistics, as of Feb.1, the COVID-19 death rate for unvaccinated Albertans (ages five and up) over the past 120 days was 64.9 per 100,000 population.

For those with two doses, the rate dropped to 11.1 and with three doses, it was 8.1.

"We do know that vaccines are still reducing the risk of death by upwards of 40 to 50 times depending on the age group we're looking at, which is still a remarkable level of protection," said Jenne.

The large pool of unvaccinated Albertans leaves a window open, he said, for the more transmissible Omicron variant — which is also known to reinfect people — to latch onto the unvaccinated and find its way to fully vaccinated Albertans who may be at higher risk due to underlying health conditions.

Omicron exacerbating underlying conditions

At the University of Alberta Hospital, infectious disease specialist Dr. Stephanie Smith said the average age of patients on the COVID-19 units during this wave is much higher than during the Delta-driven wave.

Many patients, she said, have a number of underlying health problems that elevate their risk of complications. Often, she said, an Omicron infection exacerbates conditions such as heart failure or lung disease.

"We're seeing certainly people passing away where COVID has contributed, but might not be the primary cause of their demise," she said.

Smith said the patients she sees who are vaccinated tend not to be as severely ill.

"What we're seeing is that they don't get severe disease and they tend to recover fairly easily, whereas those that are unvaccinated tend to have more severe disease and those are the ones that really are coming in with COVID pneumonia and have severe outcomes related specifically to COVID as opposed to their other medical conditions."

Dr. Stephanie Smith is a infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta. She hopes the introduction of the bivalent vaccine will kickstart booster uptake in the province. (CBC)

With the sheer volume of cases, Smith said it is not surprising the death toll is mounting.

"Obviously it's still tragic and terrible, but not entirely unexpected when we have a virus that is so incredibly transmissible and is infecting such a huge number of people," she said.

"I think truly the death rate related to Omicron is very low. It's just the pure number of cases we're seeing is incredibly high."

Cautious approach

According to Smith, hospitalizations — which remain higher than at any other time of the pandemic — appear to be peaking, and while she expects those numbers to start declining in the next few weeks, serious outcomes will continue for awhile.

"I think that we're still in for probably another two to four weeks of fairly high hospitalizations and associated deaths."

She's also worried about the prospect of lifting restrictions too quickly.

Premier Jason Kenney said this week he intends to begin lifting most public health restrictions, including the restrictions exemption program, before the end of February, providing there is a sustained decline in COVID-related hospitalizations.

"I would like to see that we have a period of time where we're not in a surge before we think about relaxing public health measures, because I think we've seen what can happen if we relax measures too early," said Smith, pointing to the Kenney government's 'open for summer' plan last year.

"I think we need to be a bit careful and cautious."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.