Alberta is currently investigating two separate, unrelated COVID-19 outbreaks involving the P.1 variant, which was first discovered in Brazil.
In a thread of tweets sent Monday afternoon, the province’s chief medical officer of health provided more information about a “significant COVID-19 outbreak in Alberta involving P.1 variants of concern,” which was originally tweeted about on Saturday.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the outbreak appears to be linked to a large employer with multiple sites across Western Canada. The name of that employer was not released.
Hinshaw said the outbreak started with a traveller who returned to Alberta from out of province. Where the person was returning from was not disclosed.
“To date, the spread has been confined to three work sites in Central and North zone, where employees have travelled between sites,” she said on Twitter.
As of Monday, 26 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to employees at the three sites and their household contacts. Hinshaw said so far, three cases are confirmed to be P.1 cases “but this will likely increase as more results come in.”
“AHS has been working with the operator and cases to ensure anyone at risk of exposure is offered testing and quarantines to limit the spread. This includes employees at other sites who may have been exposed,” she tweeted.
Anyone at risk is being contacted directly, Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw also said a separate, unrelated P.1 outbreak has been reported at a workplace in the Calgary zone. The name of the site was not released.
That outbreak currently includes five cases of COVID-19, including one confirmed case of the Brazilian variant, Hinshaw said. Health officials are also working with this employer and supporting anyone at risk.
“Thanks for your patience,” Hinshaw tweeted. “These investigations are complex and it’s important that we ensure information is accurate and that anyone at risk is directly contacted before sharing details. We also must balance the public desire for info with protecting patient confidentiality.”
A government source confirmed to Global News that one of the outbreaks is linked to PTW Canada Ltd. On its website, the Calgary-based company says it provides “fabrication, construction and maintenance services” to customers.
On Tuesday, PTW Canada Ltd. released a statement to Global News about the situation.
The company confirmed three positive cases among employees involving the P.1 COVID-19 variant at its Drayton Valley, Edson and Hinton offices.
“Our thoughts are with our employees and their families at this time as our employees isolate and focus on their health and recovery,” the statement reads in part. “The health and safety of our employees and the communities in which we live and work is our top priority.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, PTW has put in place strict safety protocols that meet or exceed the guidelines established by Alberta Health Services.”
PTW Canada said that it has hired a third party to carry out a comprehensive review of what happened and continues to work with AHS and Alberta Occupational Health and Safety to ensure it is managing the situation as well as possible.
The government source did not provide details about the other outbreak.
Albertans first learned of the original outbreak through a post on Hinshaw’s Twitter account Saturday, which stated health officials were “investigating a significant COVID-19 outbreak in Alberta involving P.1 variants of concern.”
Despite requests from Global News on Saturday and Sunday, Alberta Health would not provide further information about the outbreak, including where it was located or how many people might be affected.
A spokesperson for Alberta Health said the public health investigation was still underway and that more information would be provided on Monday.
Dr. James Talbot, who co-chairs the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic committee, said he saw the tweet sent Saturday. While he understands it was important information to share, he said he was disappointed to see it wasn’t followed up with more information.
“During the pandemic, being transparent about what’s happening has been a big part of building up trust,” he said.
“The rise of the variants has shown that it’s a bad strategy to allow the virus to be in control… Anything that you can do to keep the virus under control is a good idea. Giving people timely, accurate, useful information about the variants in the province is a big part of that.”
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said this instance is “part of a pattern that we’ve seen where Albertans are not given all the information that they need to keep themselves safe.”
“The Brazilian variant is very dangerous and Albertans want to know where we’ve seen that outbreak,” she said Monday.
“So certainly announcing it and then not giving any information worries a lot of people and I certainly very much hope that they will share that information with Albertans today.”
Dr. Darren Markland, an intensive care physician at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, said the P.1 variant is thought to have spent a fair amount of time in an immunocompromised host and during that time, it refined itself and became “highly efficient at getting into cells and infecting people.”
“It also became significantly more harmful because of its ability to rapidly infect a lot of cells in the human body,” he explained.
“It’s a variant that spreads quickly.”
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta, said all of the variants of concern are about 1.2 to 2 times more transmissible than the wild-type virus.
“At the end of the day, higher transmission is overall worse for everyone,” she said Sunday. “More people infected, there’s more people who will just, by odds, get severely ill. So it is a big concern in terms of spread in the community and (the) health-care system getting a big influx of younger people who need more supportive care.”
Last Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta was “now in a significant new wave of COVID-19” and that hospitalizations are expected to rise as a result.
“We know with great certainty that we will have close to 500 COVID-19 patients in hospital just two weeks from now,” he said, adding that number could grow to 1,000 people in a month.
Markland said hospitals are going to be “very, very busy,” adding they’re already seeing younger people coming into hospital who require “incredibly high levels of support.”
“We have the facility to put people on lung bypass — heart-lung bypass — but it is a very limited resource and we’re seeing people who are young and sick enough to require this resource,” he said Sunday.
“That is something that we had some experience with in our second wave, but because younger and otherwise completely healthy people are coming in, we will likely have to be utilizing that technology more in this wave.”
So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with approved vaccines recognize these variants and offer some protection, though it is still being closely investigated.
Saxinger said vaccine efficacy rates are going to be subject to change over the next while because studies are being conducted at different times, in different locations and in different populations. She added lab data suggests the vaccines approved for use in Canada will provide some protection against the P.1 variant.
“But we don’t have firm observed numbers in a community setting,” she cautioned.
“There are not a lot of direct studies on vaccine effectiveness in P.1, there are lab studies. Based on the lab studies, the vaccines that we have in Canada now do have still an ability to neutralize the virus in terms of the antibody response. So you can have a neutralizing antibody response. The response might be somewhat reduced compared to the wild-type but it is expected that it will still be protective.”
However, Markland warned there is still reason for caution until enough of the population has been vaccinated.
“The vaccine story is a double-edged sword. First of all, it provides people a fair amount of confidence. Everyone right now likely has a family member or loved one who has received a vaccine, and combine that with a little bit of spring fever, you can see people becoming significantly more lax about their attitudes towards preventative health-care measures,” he said.
“I have to repeat, this virus is highly infectious and is spreading exponentially and we are not vaccinating exponentially, so right now, the variants will win this race, and every person who dies as a result of any form of COVID is a preventable death.”
Simply put, Markland said the restrictions that are in place in Alberta right now are not enough to control the spread.
“The brutal fact of the matter is, all we have to do is look to Ontario to see what our future is and that will be our future in seven to 10 days. Their ICUs are full, they’re having to institute much more stringent measures,” he said.
Talbot believes the province needs to act to bring in more stringent measures to control and spread and large outbreaks, particularly when variants are concerned. He said the restrictions that were in place over the winter during the second wave “aren’t going to be enough to bring the variant back under control.”
“They should be moving to more of a lockdown situation and that would work against both the Brazil variant and the U.K. variant,” Talbot said Monday.
“Returning to no indoor dining and drinking would be a really good idea. Shutting down any kind of ability to have indoor events of any size and potentially moving to a lockdown situation where we go back to telling people, ‘If you’re going to go outside, stay outside but do not go into indoor spaces unless it’s absolutely necessary.’
“Every day that you delay putting in restrictions, every day that you have weaker-than-needed restrictions is a day lost to bring this under control.”
Saxinger said in the past, Alberta has not seen transmission turn around significantly without putting additional restrictions in place.
“Even though a lot of people have been doing all the right things all the way along — which has kept us out of deeper trouble, I would have to say — we know that extra measures are very likely to be needed at this point. I would be actually looking for something to be changing over the next few, several days hopefully,” she said.
“I would consider it quite important to get the restrictions right to try to keep this from taking off because getting behind on the transmission when we know it’s a variant of concern, especially, is a real issue right now, especially as we’re just trying to get through vaccine rollout.
“We know what we need to do, we just have to do it better and very, very stringently for the next while.”
The Alberta NDP is calling on the province to reintroduce the public health restrictions that were in place on Jan. 18 to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
On Thursday, Kenney pleaded with Albertans to follow the public health rules and guidelines currently in place but stopped short of implementing new restrictions. He noted the province was looking at whether more targeted restrictions may be needed in the future.
Hinshaw said Monday she is concerned about the rising cases, including variants, in Alberta.
The province reported 887 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, including 432 variants of concern. Variant cases now make up 39 per cent of all active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta.
As of end of day April 4, Alberta had recorded 15 total confirmed cases of the P.1 variant.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health is scheduled to provide an in-person update on COVID-19 on Tuesday afternoon.
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