Alberta's increase in COVID-19 variants points to need for asymptomatic testing, Calgary doctor says

The number of coronavirus variant cases in Alberta has grown to 221 and the chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, says she's concerned that only about half of the cases that have been fully investigated so far have been found to be linked to travel.

Province says number of coronavirus variant cases reached 221 on Tuesday

A health-care worker tests for COVID-19 at a drive-up testing facility. Concern is mounting about the increasing number of coronavirus variant cases in Alberta after 50 new cases were identified between Friday and Monday. (AHS)

The number of coronavirus variant cases confirmed in Alberta has reached 221, and roughly half of the cases that have been fully investigated have been found to be linked to travel.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said at a press conference on Tuesday that she's particularly concerned about the growing number of cases that are not linked to travel.

She says those cases are considered community acquired and that a third of them have an unknown source.

Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, an infectious disease physician with the University of Calgary, says she fully expects there are cases of the variant they're not detecting.

"When we start seeing some of the transmission in the community and when we're seeing transmission that we can't link back to a specific source, it does raise increasing concerns around how this is spreading in the community," she said.

Meier-Stephenson says there are still many questions about the variants including how long people are infectious.

"Our government and our public health officials are doing what they can to kind of develop plans around this. But sometimes with a lot of these unknowns entering into the equation, it does make it more challenging for them to make informed decisions, such as opening up various facilities and steps," she said.

This is why Meier-Stephenson says she would like to see a return to more widespread asymptomatic testing — something the province cancelled in the fall.

"Without knowing how this virus spreads, how the viral loads ramp up prior to someone showing symptoms, it can be tricky to catch this before it becomes something bigger," she said.

"Those hospitalizations could make a much greater jump in numbers with the variant."

Outbreak in schools

The province says there have now been 15 schools where variants have been identified, including three with in-school transmission.

However, health officials still refuse to specify where those cases were found.

"We are not seeing in-school settings particularly, we're not seeing a different behaviour of this particular variant. And that could be because of all of the precautions that are in place in schools," said Hinshaw.  

"The majority of cases we have exposure with no onward transmission."

Hinshaw says since the risk of the variant doesn't seem to differ within the schools, the case numbers have been lumped together.

Meier-Stephenson agrees and says she thinks the school system has done a great job with COVID-19 restrictions.

"I don't think that the transmission and spread at schools is of greater concern as there could be in some other areas," she said.

"The severity and the aggressiveness of this, in terms of the spread in the school setting, does not seem to be the case for the situation. And nothing out of the realm of what has already been seen with the original virus spread."

With files from Jennifer Lee


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