Check against delivery.
Thank you, Minister and good afternoon, everyone.
Over the last 24 hours, we identified 786 new cases of COVID-19, and completed about 7,300 tests.
As the Premier mentioned, our positivity rate is rising fast. Our Omicron cases also continue to rise, with a total of 1,609 cases now identified in Alberta since our first case. Omicron is highly transmissible, with data here and around the world showing that case counts of this variant are doubling every two to three days.
Omicron is now our dominant strain and there is increasing community transmission in the province. This means if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they should assume they have the Omicron variant.
Given the rapidly increasing volumes of Omicron cases, we have redirected all our contact tracing capacity to high-risk settings at this point. As of last weekend, all new cases not linked to settings like continuing care, acute care, and other congregate sites, have been asked to notify their own contacts. This is something that all provinces with rapidly increasing Omicron cases have moved to in order to focus resources on places that have the highest risk of severe outcomes from transmission.
There are currently 329 people being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, including 69 in the ICU.
Sadly, 2 new deaths have been reported to Alberta Health over the last 24 hours.
While losing a loved one is never easy, it can be especially difficult to lose someone during the holiday season. My thoughts are with all who have lost someone, whether to COVID or any other cause.
Last week I talked about what we knew about the Omicron variant, and why it was important for us to take it seriously. I want to reiterate that message today.
In every jurisdiction around the world that has been able to measure the spread of Omicron, it has spread faster and farther than any variant we have ever seen. We are starting to see that same pattern begin in Alberta.
I know that facing a new variant right as the holidays begin after two years of constant change, uncertainty, and sacrifice, is almost unbearable.
To think about having to change holiday plans last minute, especially after having no gatherings last year, is unfair and if we could negotiate with this virus, this would be the time to say an absolute no.
Unfortunately, there is no negotiating with a virus. All we can do is to learn as fast as possible, and make adjustments to respond to what we learn.
Let me reiterate what we know about Omicron right now. First of all, it is more infectious than any other variant to date. It’s breaking through immune protection both from previous disease and from those who have two doses of vaccine. We know that two doses of vaccine still provide good protection from severe outcomes, but three doses are even better and also boost protection against infection. This is why it is so critical that everyone get all doses of vaccine they are eligible for as soon as possible.
The decision to shorten the interval between second doses and the booster to just five months is the best one for the situation we find ourselves in right now.
While there’s likely a small trade-off in terms of long-term protection by providing booster doses before the six-month interval, there is greater benefit to the individual and collective good by administering them now while we see the Omicron variant begin to rise.
The second thing that seems so clear from the current evidence is that part of the reason that Omicron is more transmissible is because long range transmission is happening more often through aerosol dispersion. This was happening before with previous variants in specific settings – crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces especially with activities like exercise, loud talking, or singing that generate more infectious particles.
However with Omicron, this is being amplified. Using high-quality masks that fit well is critically important. Our masking guidance was updated recently, and the summary is that those with risk factors for severe outcomes are strongly recommended to wear medical masks whenever they are in settings with those outside their own household. Using N95 masks is also an option, however it is important to remember that a well-fitting medical mask provides significant benefit and that any single layer of protection that we put in place is not enough by itself.
Cloth masks still also provide some benefit as long as they are well fitting and have multiple layers, with at least one of those layers providing good filtration.
Whatever type of mask you choose to wear, make sure it fits very well, and use all other layers of protection possible including staying distanced, avoiding crowded places, maximizing ventilation, and reducing the amount of time you spend in any setting outside your home.
The third thing that we know is that it is too soon to have conclusive evidence of severity of the Omicron variant. In places that have had Omicron circulating for longer than we have, some have reported a decreased severity risk and others have not.
In all places where Omicron is circulating, hospitalizations and ICU numbers rose several weeks after cases began to rise. It is not clear at a population level, what any possible changes in severity will mean for the health system as it’s likely that those other places have not yet seen the peak of health system capacity impact.
In Alberta, it has only been just three weeks since cases of the Omicron variant were first identified, and it is far too soon to be able to assess severity.
We will learn more as time goes on, but now is the time to be cautious. As I said earlier, any positive case should be assumed to be Omicron, and cases will not receive a second notification to let them know of an Omicron result. Anyone who is feeling sick must stay home and away from others. This is a legal requirement and more important now than ever.
In general, reducing contact with others is one the most important actions we can each take, in addition to vaccination, to help protect the health of others in our community.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the difference we can make in fighting the virus when we each choose to reduce the number of people we come in contact with.
It’s critical that all of us reduce our contacts by at least half in our day-to-day routines right now while we deal with the Omicron challenge.
We’ve posted an article on alberta.ca with tips on celebrating the holiday season safely. The recommendations include keeping in-person attendance as low as possible and talking to all guests beforehand about the options for a gathering to ensure everyone is comfortable.
Whether you’re a host or a guest, I encourage having these conversations sooner rather than later to help make planning easier.
I want to be clear that I believe this situation is so serious that my family has cancelled our holiday plans. In the next few weeks, we will see transmission rise to heights we have never seen before. We don’t know what that will do to our health-care system. If you are debating what to do with a gathering, I advise taking the most cautious approach possible. Move to having an outdoor bonfire instead of gathering indoors. Have virtual gatherings instead of in-person ones. Plan for Christmas in July and celebrate right now with just your household.
I know that this is the last thing any of us want to hear right now, and I know that there are serious mental health implications of isolation. For those who are struggling right now, please reach out for help. You are not alone. In some cases, it will be important to gather in-person to support those who are struggling, and we all need to factor that into our decisions.
The bottom line though is that we are facing a significant and unknown threat. The next few weeks will be critical in determining what the New Year will look like. Please, reduce your in-person contacts, find other ways to connect with and support those you care about. Make choices about activities thinking about the impact on those around you, and please do as much as possible to limit the opportunities COVID-19 and the Omicron variant have to spread in our communities.
Thank you and we’re happy to take questions.