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Alberta records more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases as province loses track of transmission

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 2020-11-15 Jason Herring
a close up of a sign: The Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary is shown on Thursday, November 12, 2020. © Provided by Calgary Herald The Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary is shown on Thursday, November 12, 2020.

Alberta reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time Saturday, another grim milestone reached as the province struggles to control the deadly virus’s escalating spread.

The province logged 1,026 infections Saturday, setting a new single-day record for cases. The test positivity rate is unknown, as the province did not provide testing information, once again citing technical issues.

Alongside the surge in cases came three additional deaths, bringing the province’s toll to 401. Those deaths include a man in his 60s who was a resident at the Waverley House Personal Care Home, where four cases of COVID-19 have been recorded as of Friday. The other deaths involved men in the AHS Edmonton zone in their 50s and 70s, respectively.

Hospitalization rates also ticked up Saturday, with 256 Albertans now in hospital with the novel coronavirus, a seven per cent jump from Friday. Fifty-four of those patients are receiving treatment in intensive-care units.

Hospitalizations are considered to be a lagging indicator for COVID-19, meaning it takes about two weeks for reported infections to be reflected in hospital and ICU admissions.

On Twitter, Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she knew the milestone was worrisome for many.

“I know Albertans are concerned with the alarming rise in cases — I share these concerns,” Hinshaw tweeted.

Thousands of Albertans have tested positive for the novel coronavirus over the past week, but how and where are they acquiring the illness?

Virus experts say those are vital questions but it’s something the provincial government is unable to answer, as 86 per cent of reported cases between Nov. 6 and 12 have an unknown source of suspected transmission.

“It makes it very difficult to notify people to limit an outbreak. If we don’t know where you’re catching it, we don’t know who else has been exposed and it makes it very difficult to ask them to isolate,” said Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

“But it also makes informed decision making extremely difficult. If you don’t know where the cases are coming from, how do you accurately put in targeted restrictions?”

The recent difficulty in identifying infection origins stems from the swell of new cases having overwhelmed Alberta’s contact tracing infrastructure.

Last week, Alberta announced it was suspending notification of close contacts  for all confirmed COVID-19 cases that do not impact high-priority settings like acute-care settings, continuing-care facilities and schools. Albertans are now expected to notify their own close contacts about their exposure, an arrangement slated to continue until an adequate number of contact tracers have been hired and trained.

Alberta Health Services is slated to add 450 more contact tracers and has unveiled other initiatives to aid tracing efforts, including introducing an online portal where infected Albertans can enter information on their close contacts so automated texts can be sent. Meanwhile, some school boards have undertaken contact tracing work themselves . But the delay is impacting what experts know about this new wave of spread.

“We are getting a bit of a backlog in contact tracing, which is problematic, and I know the province has moved to bring on additional contact tracers but their job is getting infinitely more difficult,” said Jenne, who described business relaunch as opening a Pandora’s box of unknowable contacts, whether on the bus, in the grocery store or at a nearby restaurant table.

“We have no ability to know those names … . Even when people are co-operating as much as possible, there’s all these anonymous contacts.”

Some new restrictions announced by the province Thursday focus on areas where there is little evidence of local COVID-19 transmission. Eateries now must end alcohol sales by 10 p.m. and close their doors by 11 p.m., while all indoor group fitness and non-professional team sports activities are suspended until Nov. 27.

Premier Jason Kenney has defended the province’s decision to keep restaurants and bars open, saying these settings were only found to be the source of less than one per cent of all cases. But he acknowledged Thursday that 40 per cent of the province’s total cases have unknown transmission, meaning the actual level of transmission is likely higher.

“We do know that in that sector we have seen a relatively small but still growing number of businesses that late at night have moved their tables out of the way and turned into de facto nightclubs, which has always been against the restrictions,” Kenney said.

University of Calgary economist Blake Shaffer said Saturday he expects restaurants are driving more spread than the province has detected.

“Unless a restaurant is taking names of all the diners — some are but most aren’t — they aren’t going to know the other diners,” Shaffer said. “So it’s pretty reasonable to believe that many of those unknown cases are in that setting.”

Updated information on regional case information or testing was not available Saturday, with a full update from Hinshaw scheduled for Monday afternoon.

— With files from Alanna Smith

Twitter: @jasonfherring


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