156 travellers being monitored for omicron variant, Alberta premier says

Alberta has identified 156 travellers who have returned in the past two weeks from south African countries where the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been detected, Premier Jason Kenney said Monday.

No confirmed cases of new omicron variant in Alberta

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, and Health Minister Jason Copping spoke at a news conference Monday on COVID-19 in the province. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press; Government of Alberta)

Alberta has identified 156 travellers who have returned in the past two weeks from south African countries where the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus has been detected, Premier Jason Kenney said Monday.

"These travellers were contacted over the weekend with information on current protocols, including testing and quarantine requirements," Kenney told a news conference. "These travellers and their households have also been offered household rapid-testing kits in addition to PCR tests."

No cases of the omicron variant have been detected in the province, Kenney said, "but we're working with these individuals to reduce any chance of spread."

On Friday, Canada announced that foreign nationals who had travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the previous 14 days would be barred from entering the country.

Two cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Ontario, and another in Quebec.

'Omicron should not cause people to despair'

"It will take time before we know exactly how omicron will behave but we are much better prepared for omicron than any other variant before it," Kenney said.

"So while this news is, I know, frustrating for us all, omicron should not cause people to despair.

"We have demonstrated great resilience and with widespread vaccine coverage, plus new treatments emerging from trials and better medical information on how to treat COVID 19, we have reason to believe that we can overcome the challenges ahead.

"I know nobody wants to hear news like this, especially as our friends in the Jewish community have just begun to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas is just around the corner, but I ask that Albertans remain patient and vigilant as we learn more about this emerging variant."

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said 806 new cases of COVID-19 have been identified over the past three days: 228 on Sunday, 253 on Saturday and 325 on Friday.

'We need to be prudent, careful and cautious’ on new omicron variant, Kenney says

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Although there have been no cases on the COVID-19 omicron variant detected in Alberta, health officials are monitoring new developments and say it is likely to eventually reach the province.

Seven more deaths from the disease have been reported, she said.

There are currently 432 people being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, including 77 in intensive care.

Alberta currently has 4850 active cases of COVID-19. Here is how they break down by zone:

  • Calgary zone: 1,847
  • Edmonton zone: 1,146
  • North zone: 831
  • Central zone: 664
  • South zone: 358
  • Unknown: 4

Goal is to 'delay the spread' of omicron

"As we have seen with other variants, it is very likely that omicron will eventually reach our province," Hinshaw said. "Our goal now is to delay the spread of omicron until we learn more about it."

She said that while there are many unanswered questions about omicron, "we know a lot more about COVID now than we did before. This knowledge means we are not going back to Step 0. We still have a lot of tools at our disposal to address this new variant."

The provincial lab is screening all COVID-positive samples for previously known variants. In the past week, 99.8 per cent of all Alberta cases have been the delta variant, she said.

All samples that screened negative for delta are sent for full genetic sequencing, she said.

"This will help us to identify any cases of omicron. All non-delta variant cases in recently returned travellers from any country will be prioritized for genetic sequencing."

Other measures are being put in place for all COVID-19 cases identified in returning international travellers, Hinshaw said.

"This includes an expanded case investigation, contact tracing and notification, PCR testing recommendations for close contacts and an addition of rapid testing options for household contacts, un-immunized and partially immunized close contacts of a confirmed case."

Any returning international traveller who has had contact with a confirmed case will be asked to quarantine at home for 14 days after their last contact, Hinshaw said.

If cases in a recently returned international traveler are identified in schools or child-care facilities, all class or cohort contacts will be notified and will be advised to get tested through AHS, she said. 

Changes to AHS staff immunization policy

Alberta Health has directed Alberta Health Services to change its immunization policy for staff, allowing for proof of negative-COVID-19 tests in some communities.

Starting Dec. 13, AHS will temporarily bring in frequent and targeted COVID-19 testing for workers who have chosen not to disclose their vaccination status or have said they will not get vaccinated.

A deadline for staff to be fully immunized will also be extended to Dec. 13 from Nov. 30 to accommodate the introduction of the testing option, AHS president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said.

"Only clinical work locations deemed to be at significant risk of service disruptions due to staffing shortages resulting from unvaccinated staff will be part of the testing program," Yiu said.

"The temporary testing option will only be available for a very small number of staff at a small number of specific health care locations."

As of Friday, 260 employees will be eligible for the testing option across 16 work locations provincially, representing about 0.2 per cent of all staff and about three per cent of AHS workplace locations.

Under the current AHS policy, employees who chose not to be fully immunized and have not been granted accommodation would have been put on an unpaid leave of absence.

The targeted testing will be reviewed by March 2022.

To date, 96 per cent of AHS full-time and part-time employees, and more than 99 per cent of physicians, have submitted proof of immunization. Ninety-nine per cent of staff in intensive care units are fully immunized.