Calgary

Accelerating spread of COVID-19 variant strain in Alberta worrisome, Calgary infectious disease expert warns

A Calgary infectious disease expert who is watching the COVID-19 numbers closely says he's growing increasingly worried as variants of concern now account for about 11 per cent of all active cases and coronavirus hospitalizations.

Alberta reports 479 new cases of COVID-19, 50 involving variants of the virus

Laboratory technologists work to sequence the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the BCCDC in Vancouver on Jan. 19, 2021. Variant cases of the virus account for about 11 per cent of active cases in Alberta as of March 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A Calgary infectious disease expert who is watching the COVID-19 numbers closely says he's growing increasingly worried as variants of concern now account for about 11 per cent of all active cases and coronavirus hospitalizations.

To date, there have been 1,097 cases identified involving variants of concern in Alberta. Of those, 548 people have recovered and 14 have died.

Alberta reported 479 new cases of COVID-19 — 50 involving variants of the virus — and four more deaths on Wednesday. 

Dr. Craig Jenne, an associate professor at the University of Calgary in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, said we are now seeing a doubling in a little more than a week. And it could continue to grow particularly if the province continues to reopen activities and services in the community.

"We are seeing a substantial number of variant cases, and more so than what is being reported by other provinces. And critically, those numbers appear to be growing. So it's not just that we're detecting more of them — we're detecting more every day, which is suggesting that there is a reasonable level of community spread of these variants," he said.

Alberta Health said as of Wednesday there were 28 cases in hospital who tested positive for variants of concern. This represents 10.6 per cent of current hospitalizations. Overall, variants make up 10.9 per cent of active COVID-19 cases.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said 535 of 4,918 active cases of the disease in the province are linked to the B117 strain first identified in the U.K. Two other variants, those first detected in Brazil and South Africa, are found in small numbers in the province and are linked to travel, she said.

"The B117 variant is spreading in many different contexts and many different settings," Hinshaw said. "And we're seeing higher attack rates than we typically do in settings where people are exposed.

"That variant has become established in the community," she said, adding that health officials are working hard to slow its spread "but it is spreading in all zones in our province."

More cases out there 

And it's a certainty that there are more variant cases than have been counted given that only about one in four of Alberta's COVID-19 cases are actually tested and identified, said Hinshaw.

"So certainly there has always been spread in the community that we don't identify with [polymerase chain-reaction] PCR tests. But we are doing quite well compared to some other jurisdictions that would be picking up, for example, about one in 10 cases," she said.

"I think it's fair to say there is more spread in the community than we see with our PCR-diagnosed cases and that is exactly why we need Albertans to be following the rules in place, because we never know when we are going to be in the presence of someone who is infectious, whether it's with our dominant strain or a variant strain."

Currently outdoor social gatherings of up to 10 people are permitted.

But Hinshaw says it's critical that people keep their distance from others and follow all public health guidelines at outdoor social gatherings.

Tightening race

The community spread of the more infectious variant cases means the race between the spread of the virus and getting people vaccinated is getting tighter, according to Jenne.

Because the variant spreads more easily, once it starts to grow exponentially, hospitalizations and ICU admissions could rise more quickly than they did during the second wave, he said.

"We need to ensure we're holding the virus at bay until those groups are protected, and right now the growth of the virus almost appears to be outpacing our ability to protect Albertans," Jenne said. 

"We are seeing a substantial number of variant cases, and more so than what is being reported by other provinces. And critically, those numbers appear to be growing. So it's not just that we're detecting more of them; we're detecting more every day, which is suggesting that there is a reasonable level of community spread of these variants." 

With files from Jennifer Lee

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