The province has come down from a third wave of COVID-19 and is slated to move into Stage 2 of its reopening plan on Thursday, but there are concerns about opening up as case numbers of the more transmissible Delta variant rise in Alberta.
During the third wave, AHS said the peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Edmonton zone took place on May 20, with 151 in non-ICU beds; ICU occupancy topped out at 76 on May 17.
As of Wednesday, there were 109 in hospital, including 33 in ICU in the Edmonton Zone.
Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious diseases physician and director of infection prevention and control at the University of Alberta Hospital, said the hospital is seeing a decline in hospitalizations and ICU numbers.
“We’re starting to be able to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief,” she said.
“We’re really starting to see the effects of more people being vaccinated and having less people in the hospital.”
Dr. Sean van Diepen, an associate professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, said that while COVID-19 admissions have gone down, hospitals are still dealing with patients coming in with other respiratory, cardiac or infectious issues.
Van Diepen said, during the third wave, that there was physical space to care for patients but staffing in an already fatigued healthcare system was an issue.
“How close we were to a breaking point? I can’t give you an exact number but I think we were close,” he said.
Smith said she is “cautiously optimistic” about moving into the next stage of reopening, saying case counts have gone down, vaccination rates have gone up and the numbers of those fully vaccinated is slowly on the rise.
“But I think the big unknown is some of these variants and how much protection we’ll have with just one dose,” she said.
Evidence has shown the Delta variant, also known as B.1617, is more transmissible and research has indicated that one dose of vaccine is somewhat less effective in protecting against it, said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw on Thursday.
Recent data collected by Public Health England (PHE) found one dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines is only 33 per cent effective in protecting against the Delta variant.
PHE said data shows that protection level increases to 88 per cent with two doses of Pfizer and 60 per cent with two doses of AstraZeneca.
The province is again testing all positive cases for variants of concern; that testing was put on pause in May because of high case numbers.
As of Wednesday, there are 208 cases of the Delta variant identified in the province — 15 more than the previous day — but there are worries it could become the dominant strain in Alberta.
“There’s definitely a possibility. So depending on the prevalence and incidence of the Delta variant throughout Alberta, I think the general population really needs to understand that if that becomes, or if there is widespread community spread, they’re going to need to protect themselves further.
“So masks and social distancing may need to continue,” van Diepen said.
The province’s reopening plan, however, is based on first doses, though Hinshaw and the premier have said second doses are embedded in the plan.
“I think the focus really is trying to get as many people as fully vaccinated as possible over the summer and that will certainly make me feel better in terms of the reopening plan,” Smith said.
Both doctors said that there should be flexibility in the reopening plan, particularly when it comes to the presence of variants.
“If they go up and the majority of Albertans only have had one dose and we start seeing a rise in hospital and ICU admission then I think there may be a potential need for a rollback,” van Diepen said.
The province has had to pause reopening plans in the past after rapidly rising case counts; there is concern the combination of Delta variants and not enough people fully vaccinated could create a perfect storm.
“If we start really seeing significant increases in variant then I think that, in combination with people not getting their second dose or not having enough people fully vaccinated, are the two things that would make it tenuous, in terms of the possibility of a fourth wave, especially given we’re looking at having very few restrictions in place,” Smith said.
–with files from Lauren Pullen
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