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Alberta sets record on active COVID cases, top doctor unsure when peak will hit

EDMONTON — Alberta is reporting a new record high of COVID-19 cases and its chief medical officer of health warns it’s still too soon to predict when the tsunami wave of Omicron-driven illnesses will crest.

“It is a little early to determine what the overall trend is going to be,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters Thursday.

Hinshaw said that even when Omicron hits the downslope, there will still be a danger of caseloads overwhelming the health system.

“Independent of that timing of the peak, I think it’s really critical to remember that in any wave we see half of our cases in the second half of the wave and therefore we need to remain cautious,” she said. 

“Transmission has never been higher.”

Alberta announced 62,733 active cases of COVID-19, the highest at any point in the near two-year stretch of the pandemic. 

Hinshaw has also said the true figure is likely 10 times that number, given that high caseloads have overwhelmed the ability of the system to test outside high-priority groups.

The positivity rate was at almost 41 per cent.

There were 786 people in hospital with the illness, including 79 in intensive care.

While data shows those who are immunized are less likely to require critical care, Hinshaw said Omicron still has the potential to swamp hospitals with patients and buckle the health system.

“Omicron is so transmissible that the rapidly increasing number of cases could get to a point where more people than any previous wave would need to be admitted for care,” she said.

Premier Jason Kenney’s government has already taken steps to arrest the surge of Omicron cases. 

It slashed capacity limits at major public events, and that’s on top of a vaccine mandate implemented in the fall for non-essential businesses.

Grade school students returned to in-person learning this week after the province promised more masks and rapid test kits to help reduce the risk of the spread of Omicron.

Kenney said some of the promised tests have been delayed due to supply chain bottlenecks. Alberta recently purchased 10 million tests from a private supplier. 

The premier said two million have arrived and another seven million are expected in the next two weeks.

He said the federal government has promised 16 million tests this month, but it’s not known when they will arrive.

Schools have received about 58 per cent of the initial supply of tests they had been promised, said Kenney.

“As soon as we receive additional tests, we’ll get the remaining 42 per cent allocated, repackaged and distributed,” said Kenney.

He said schools have also started receiving shipments of 10 million masks.

“When complete, every student and staff member will receive two five-rapid-test kits and an eight-weekly supply of masks if they want them."

Kenney said so far a small number of classes have had to shift to online learning due to Omicron spread and two schools have had to move completely to online learning entirely.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said Kenney's United Conservative government needs to do more to get vaccines out to children.

“This week alone we have seen 34 children admitted to hospital with COVID-19, including five to the ICU,” said Shepherd.

“We must address the rapid spread of this highly contagious variant among the lowest-vaccinated population.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2022.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press