Alberta is reporting its first case of a COVID-19 variant, first seen in the United Kingdom, that cannot be directly traced to international travel.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro says while it is one case, the variant has the potential to spread faster than the original novel coronavirus and could quickly overwhelm hospitals if not checked.
“There’s no question that this kind of exponential growth would push our health-care system to the brink,” Shandro told a virtual news conference Monday.
“It would significantly impact the health care and the services available to all Albertans.”
Alberta has 20 known cases of the U.K. variant and five of another strain first reported in South Africa.
Alberta is not alone facing the variant.
In Ontario Monday, public health units announced plans to enhance infection control measures given evidence the U.K. variant had emerged across the province.
Shandro noted the case of U.K. variant outbreak at a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home is a sobering example of its deadly swiftness.
“This outbreak has seen more than 200 residents and staff infected within a few weeks and more than 30 people have lost their lives,” he said.
Shandro announced changes to travel rules as a result of the variant.
International passengers returning to Alberta via Calgary’s airport or at the border crossing at Coutts will have to remain in isolation between their first and second COVID-19 tests.
Up until now, they could go about their business after receiving a negative test result and before getting a second test six or seven days later.
Shandro said travellers will now have to self-isolate for a full two weeks if either test is positive.
Alberta continues to reduce the cases of COVID-19 but Shandro said the numbers, and the threat of the variant, prevent current lockdown measures from being lifted.
Those measures include a sharp reduction in the number of customers in stores at any one time, and closure of all amusement and entertainment venues like casinos and movie theatres.
There is a ban on indoor gatherings and outdoor gatherings of no more than 10 are allowed.
Alberta introduced the stricter measures in mid-December after soaring case rates threatened to swamp the health system. Some non-urgent surgeries in Edmonton have had to be put on hold.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, announced 362 new cases of COVID-19, compared with daily numbers peaking as high as 1,800 in mid-December.
There 637 people in hospital with COVID, 113 of whom are in intensive care. Hinshaw announced 25 more deaths, bringing that total to 1,574.
Shandro also announced more than 99,000 Albertans have received either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Both require two doses spread weeks apart to be fully effective. Alberta has prioritized those most at-risk, as well as residents in long-term care and designated supportive living facilities.
The vaccinations began in mid-December and Shandro said about 10,000 Albertans have now received the double dose.
The main supplier, Pfizer, has announced Canada will not get any vaccines this week and sharply reduced numbers in the weeks to follow as it retrofits its Belgium facility in order to produce more vaccine.
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd urged Shandro to continue to share critical information and the data supporting it.
“I’m glad the government has finally released modelling that demonstrates just how dangerous these variants can be,” said Shepherd.
“A clear and transparent plan with daily — not weekly — reporting is crucial to public confidence.
“(Premier) Jason Kenney failed to act as second-wave cases grew exponentially in November and December. He must not repeat that mistake with these dangerous new variants.”