Dipping COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations had some of the province’s medical officials cautiously speaking Tuesday of a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
But Premier Jason Kenney said some measures, including a vaccine passport, will remain in effect well into next year.
At the same time, the province announced the immediate introduction of a QR code-scanning vaccination verification app critics have called long-overdue, after it was found a downloadable card introduced last month was easy to mimic.
The free app is available on Apple and Android devices, and when scanned at a venue entrance will simply exhibit a green check mark or a red X to indicate vaccination status.
The enhanced record, which will be the only type accepted as of Nov. 15, can be acquired at alberta.ca/CovidRecords and won’t contain personal information, said Kenney.
“We’re making it easier and more secure for people and businesses to participate in the (Restrictions Exemption Program) and limit the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
More importantly, health-care officials said Tuesday, is the COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations that have seemingly plateaued and have been falling for several days.
“Today, I’m a little more optimistic than I’ve been in a little while,” said Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu.
“We’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel and if we continue to work together and do the right things, the light will only get brighter.”
Because of the slight easing of pressure on the health-care system, about 3,500 surgeries were performed in the past week, compared to 3,100 two weeks ago, the latter number just over 50 per cent of normal.
Over the previous four days, 3,358 new infections were detected with a test positivity rate ranging from 7.9 to 9.2 per cent — down from an 11 per cent level that prevailed in the weeks before.
But Yiu noted that with 242 COVID-19 patients, ICU capacity is still at 172 per cent of its normal capability.
Over the past four days, the number of people being treated in hospital for the disease fell by 48, to 1,053.
But relative to other waves of the pandemic, those figures remain “extremely high,” said Yiu, adding the strain on hospitals has “eased ever so slightly.”
So far in the fourth wave, 290 patients have been transferred from overstretched hospitals, with 23 of those being moved over the past weekend, she said.
Casting a persistent pall over that progress is the number of COVID-19-related deaths, with 33 more being recorded over the Thanksgiving long weekend.
Among them was a 14-year-old male in the Central zone who Alberta Health said had pre-existing conditions.
A woman in her 30s in the North zone and a man in his 40s in the Edmonton area — neither with any such conditions — also died.
Kenney also said that while the virus’s case numbers are on an encouraging downswing, Albertans must remain cautious, adding the REP program will likely be extended into at least the first quarter of 2022.
“We’re heading into an uncertain period, and even if we continue to see a downward momentum in the case and hospitalization numbers . . . we’ll have to be on our guard as we go into colder weather when people head indoors,” he said.
“We will also be experiencing waning protection both from natural immunity-acquired protection and vaccines as well.”
There’s still no intention to provide booster shots for the bulk of the province’s population, but that could change, Kenney added.
He noted 85 per cent of Albertans aged 18 and over have now received one shot, while 76 per are fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the Opposition NDP said they’ll be calling for an all-party committee to review what it calls the UCP government’s bungled handling of the fourth wave of the pandemic.
“This work of assessing how to protect Albertans better, of how to make better decisions, must be the highest priority,” said party Leader Rachel Notley.
Kenney said there’ll be time to review the province’s pandemic performance, but to do so now would distract from defeating the fourth wave.
Also on Tuesday, AHS released an open letter signed by three physicians advising against the use of both animal and human forms of the anti-parasite drug ivermectin to treat COVID-19, describing the practice as dangerous.
It said misinformation about the drug’s merits was too widespread to ignore and noted updated research has found no indication of pandemic benefits.
“If there was good evidence for its use against this virus, AHS would absolutely be using it to help patients and reduce the burden on our health-care system,” states the letter.
“As this evidence does not exist, AHS does not recommend the use of ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19 — not even as a ‘just in case’ measure.”
That letter and warnings about ivermectin follow claims by Dr. Daniel Nagase, who’s listed as a family practitioner in Vancouver, that he administered the drug to three elderly COVID-19 patients late last month at Rimbey Hospital in central Alberta.
He told an anti-vaxxer protest rally in Vancouver that the patients’ conditions either markedly improved or stabilized due to the treatments and that AHS officials forbade him from administering medication and from practising soon after.
Both the provincial government and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta have said Nagase’s claims are being investigated.