Double-jabs can still tackle Alberta's rising COVID numbers: expert

'The numbers are worse than expected, because we have this patchiness of vaccination uptake.'

Edmonton Journal 3 minute read August 22, 2021

Alberta’s “patchiness” of vaccine uptake is contributing to rising COVID-19 cases now that restrictions have eased and the Delta variant has taken hold, says an Edmonton infectious disease specialist.

“The numbers are worse than expected, because we have this patchiness of vaccination uptake. And then, the Delta variant really does demand a higher number of vaccinated to get to that place where you can nip things in the bud,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.

“It’s almost like you have an epidemic of the unvaccinated that’s hidden within our overall numbers.”

More than 80 per cent of Albertans hospitalized for COVID-19 haven’t been vaccinated and about five per cent have had one shot. About 14 per cent of COVID patients are fully vaccinated.

Alberta’s publicly-available data showed 221 people in hospital including 48 in ICU by Friday. There were 749 new cases of the disease, and 6,709 active cases in the province. A total of 2,343 people have died. A month ago there were around 80 people with COVID-19 being treated in Alberta hospitals.

The province’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been partially successful, as shown in a reduced number of deaths.

But, not having a consistent level of high vaccination rates across the province, along with the more infectious Delta variant, seems to be driving cases higher than anticipated.

Saxinger is concerned by the increasing number of people falling seriously ill and ending up in hospital, including a younger demographic, those 18 to 64. Young people seem to recover more quickly, however, and the risk of them dying is low.

“There’s been increasing (overall) hospitalizations kind of week over week … that just is quite concerning, that the Delta variant is changing the equation,” she said.

“We really do see a non-reassuring number of young people who are getting significantly ill.”

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Hinshaw said this spring there appeared to be some “seasonality” to COVID-19.

But Saxinger said whatever protection warmer weather was expected to give is falling away already — cases and hospitalizations are also much higher this summer, heading into the fall, than last year.

Pandemic end within reach

Saxinger said the end of the pandemic is within reach if we use the tools we have now, like getting vaccinated, and working to increase all shots in areas that are lagging behind.

The Delta variant might require a more than 85 per cent vaccination rate to stop the disease.

“The bar is higher because the Delta variant is so much more transmissible … you really do need higher numbers now.”

In the meantime, she said wearing masks indoors, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and being thoughtful about interactions with people outside your circle will still help in the battle.

She also thinks the province could be — and probably is — looking at how cases are spreading in different scenarios, as it seems most of the outbreaks are now occurring out in the community, rather than inside health and long-term care facilities and schools, like in previous waves.

As hospitalizations for COVID-19 surpassed 200 in Alberta on Friday, Alberta Health Services (AHS) warned the nurses’ union that staff may be recalled from vacation to help overtaxed intensive care units and emergency departments in Edmonton and the South Zone.