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B.C. health officials downplay federal concerns as researchers warn of undetected variants – CTV News Vancouver



As Canada’s top doctor warned the country about a third wave of COVID-19 driven by variants and researchers urged governments to ramp up testing, B.C. health officials are downplaying the predictions and defending the province’s approach to testing and variants.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam cautioned that with more-contagious COVID-19 variants now spreading in all provinces, “the current community-based public health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence is forecast.”

That resurgence could lead to a seven-fold increase in daily infections, according to modelling Tam presented in Ottawa.

During her briefing in Vancouver on Friday, B.C.’s deputy provincial health officer Reka Gustafson responded to questions about Tam’s modelling.

“Mathematical models are exactly that, and they take the parameters that we are seeing with these new variants and can give us potential scenarios,” Gustafson said. “They don’t predict what’s going to happen, and I think that’s really important to remember.”

“There is actually no indication from the behavior of the variants that we need to do anything that is different, and what we mean by that is that the mode of transmission of the new variants is very similar, the virus is just more efficient (in its) transmission … The things that we need to do to prevent the transmission of variants are the exact same things we do to prevent COVID-19, but we have less room for error.”

Tam and other experts have been taking a more aggressive tone in warning citizens that the mutations that make the virus more contagious and deadly can spread with alarming speed, as seen in Newfoundland and Labrador this month, requiring both careful monitoring and a willingness to make amendments to public health orders.

Adding further concern to the situation, a team of B.C. university researchers is urging governments to swiftly ramp up detection of the variants, lest they spread undetected. 

“I’m very concerned about the higher transmissibility of these variants — we’re going to hit a wall in Canada when these variants start circulating in the community and we’re going to have to see much more strict regulations to bend the curve down with such a rapidly growing variant,” said UBC biomathematician and study co-author Sally Otto.

“We constructed a model that would predict by the time you find your first case, how many other cases would there be in the community? And the thing is, if we don’t look at a lot of cases, if we don’t do a lot of sequencing, there could be hundreds of cases by the time we detect a case in the community.”

B.C. was one of the first provinces to adopt a more efficient process for screening for variants, which is much more complex and time-consuming than a standard COVID-19 test, which provides a response within 24 to 48 hours. 

Only after someone tests positive are specially selected samples sent to a B.C. Centre for Disease Control lab – one of only a handful in the country capable of further testing – for targeted PCR testing to search for a mutation the three main variants of concern have in common. If the mutation is detected, then full genome sequencing is done to determine which variant in particular has been discovered; the process takes almost a week.

“In order to really find it when it’s one or a few people, before it gets out and established within the community, we have to ramp up that testing pretty much every week or every other week,” Otto said.

That suggestion comes as B.C. testing rates remain relatively stagnant. While the health minister and provincial health officer had promised a capacity for 20,000 tests per day by the fall, actual tests have never come near that. The most tests performed in a single day was 15,213 on Nov. 27, around the height of the province’s second wave. Since then, daily tests have been largely under the 8,000 mark

On a national scale, B.C. is also well behind on testing, especially compared to the other most populous provinces on a per capita basis. Canada-wide, there have been 614,953 tests for every million residents, but B.C. has only conducted 357,341 per million. Alberta is at 748,995 while Ontario and Quebec are virtually tied around 700,000. 

CTV News asked Gustafson if the province had any plans to ramp up testing or change the criteria, which were made stricter in December and require specific or persistent symptoms for testing

“Our testing guidelines in British Columbia have actually quite a low threshold,” Gustafson said. “We actually have no indication that we’re missing large numbers of cases or even substantial number of cases.”

“One of the reasons may be that our testing is relatively low is that the measures that we’re taking that reduce the rate of COVID-19 actually reduce other respiratory illnesses as well, and because we generally test people with symptoms of respiratory illness, if we have less respiratory illness in the community, fewer people will be will be presenting testing,” she said.

When asked whether the province had any plans or benchmarks at which it would implement stricter restrictions, particularly in light of Ontario communities extending lockdowns as they hunt for variants, Gustafson suggested that wasn’t necessary. 

“The mode of transmission, how long you’re infectious, the fact it’s spread through respiratory droplets – those have not changed (with the variants),” she said. “Which means, really, it’s really not a question of doing something different. It just makes us sure that we absolutely have to do our very best to follow those measures and to really do excellent case and contact management, which means that all contacts who were asked to self-isolate, actually need to self-isolate, need to adhere to those recommendations given by public health, because there’s less room for error.”  

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Alberta records its largest daily case count since early February, adds 430 new infections – CTV Edmonton



Alberta recorded its largest daily increase in new COVID-19 cases since near the start of the month with 430 new infections reported on Wednesday. 

The increase in the largest in one day since the 582 reported on Feb. 4.

Active cases continued to fall, down by 25 to 4,545, a level last seen in late October. 

The number of active cases continues to decline but the rate of decrease has tailed off in the last week, with no triple-digit decreases since Feb. 17 and small increases recorded twice in the past week.

The province also reported 13 deaths, bringing its total to 1,866. Due to delays in death reporting only two of the deaths reported Wednesday occured in February, with five of them going back to December of 2020.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients also continued its downwards trend with 307 reported in hospital, down 20 from Tuesday. The number of patients in intensive care units rose by five, up to 56. 

Alberta reported a 4.64 per cent test positivity on based on 9,467 tests. 

The province reported 22 new variant cases of COVID-19, all of them the B.1.1.7 “U.K.” variant. Eighteen of those cases were recorded in the Calgary health zone, which is significantly larger than the city itself.

More than 186,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered so far.

Dr. Hinshaw returns Monday, March 1, for an in-person update.

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Computer programmer shares workaround to Alberta COVID-19 vaccine booking issues – Global News



UPDATE: As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, it appeared the website had been changed and the workaround was no longer effective.

Hundreds of people said they were able to book COVID-19 vaccination appointments for their loved ones Wednesday thanks to a workaround published online by a computer programmer.

It all started Wednesday morning when Kory Mathewson‘s family logged on to the Alberta Health Services website to book appointments for Grandma Mufty and Grandpa Bill.

The first appointment was booked after a few tries but getting the second was more difficult.

Like so many other Albertans, once logging onto the website and putting in the postal code, the website stopped working for Mathewson.

Read more:
Alberta COVID-19 vaccine booking site ‘experiencing very high volumes’ as appointments open to those 75 and older

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Being a computer programmer and developer, Mathewson checked out the coding of the website.

He discovered that he could alter the code and bypass the postal code section, going straight to the patient information form.

By doing so, Mathewson was quickly able to book an appointment.

Upon getting the confirmation, he describes feeling immediate relief.

“It’s exactly that. It’s like: ‘Finally! I don’t have to worry.’”

After double checking the process and simplifying it for a less tech-savvy audience, Mathewson posted the workaround to Twitter in hopes of helping others do the same.

“It was like, ‘OK, how do we make this as easy as possible for people?’ You know, people that don’t know code,” Mathewson told Global News.

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Within hours, hundreds of Albertans responded saying the hack had worked for them and they were also able to book appointments for their loved ones.

However, as of 7 p.m. it appeared the website had been changed and the workaround was no longer effective.

In a series of messages on Twitter Wednesday night, AHS said it had “put additional queuing software in place to help manage the volume of users on the AHS COVID-19 immunization booking tool.

“This software will indicate an estimated wait time, and where each individual is in the booking queue to give people the option to continue booking, or to try again later.”

As of 7 p.m., 43,000 eligible seniors 75 and over had booked appointments using the immunization tool and 811 since it went live at 8 a.m., AHS said.

A spokesperson for AHS told Global News that the queueing system has “nothing to do with the workaround” shared on Twitter.

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A Twitter user created a video walking through the steps to show others how to do it in a visual way.

“It was a real community effort and all the different people kind of pulled together to make this solution happen,” said Mathewson.

Read more:
Albertans 75 and older can book COVID-19 vaccine appointments starting 8 a.m. Wednesday

The former Edmontonian believes Alberta Health Services could use the tool to fix the delays for all Albertans.

“In my opinion, this seems like a relatively straightforward fix.”

“I’m more than happy to be connected with the people at AHS to make this happen,” Mathewson said. “Part of the reason that I’m here is to sort of communicate that there are great developers like myself that are ready to help make this possible and make this as frictionless and as easy as possible for all Albertans.”

Click to play video 'Alberta Health Minister says AHS is ‘fixing the the problems’ with COVID-19 vaccine booking system'

Alberta Health Minister says AHS is ‘fixing the the problems’ with COVID-19 vaccine booking system

Alberta Health Minister says AHS is ‘fixing the the problems’ with COVID-19 vaccine booking system

In a statement, Alberta Health Services confirmed the appointments booked using the workaround were official but that “this is not a permanent solution.”

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“The AHS online immunization booking tool continues to experience extremely high volumes and our IT teams are working to find a way to make the process as fast and efficient as possible for everyone.”

Read more:
Should all seniors get the COVID-19 vaccine before essential workers?

In the meantime, Mathewson and his brother Kyle say they’ll continue to help others looking to book appointments.

“I did this for my grandparents but really, this is for all the grandparents of Alberta,” said Mathewson.

“There’s a lot of people that want this and want to be safe. And hopefully this gets them one step closer and takes away that, ‘when is it going to happen?’”

Mufty and Bill Mathewson.

Courtesy/Kory Mathewson

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Moderna begins studying potential COVID-19 vaccine booster targetting variant first detected in South Africa –



Drug manufacturer Moderna says it will begin testing a variant-specific version of its COVID-19 vaccine that would target the B1351 variant first detected in South Africa.  

The company has previously reported that its original two-dose vaccine — already approved for use in Canada — appears to provide protection against the B117 variant first detected in the U.K., as well as the B1351 variant, though its own research suggests it may be less effective against the latter

The company says it will study the B1351 variant-specific vaccine both as a potential booster to the original COVID-19 vaccine and as a standalone for people who have not yet received a vaccine at all. 

It will study the outcomes of three different scenarios:

  • A single shot of the B1351 variant-specific vaccine. 
  • A shot combining both the original vaccine and the B1351 variant-specific booster. 
  • A booster of the original vaccine, added to the original two-dose version. 

The B1351-specific vaccine will undergo clinical trials at the National Institutes for Health in the U.S.

“As we seek to defeat COVID-19, we must be vigilant and proactive as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna in a statement. 

“Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic.”

Moderna reported last month that its vaccine was essentially as effective against the B117 variant as it was to prior variants.

But it found there was a reduction in its neutralizing ability against the B1351 variant. 

Neutralizing antibodies are one of the body’s immune responses to control viral infections.

South Africa paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after data from a small trial suggested the vaccine did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the B1351 variant now dominant in the country.

Johnson & Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Novavax have all looked at how their vaccines perform against the B1351 variant.

WATCH | Doctor calls for aggressive action to target COVID-19 variants:

In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, Dr. Brooks Fallis speaks out against reopening plans in several provinces as officials study potential implications of the spread of new COVID-19 variants. 8:46

Variants confirmed around the world

The B1351 variant has been detected in at least 40 countries while the B117, first detected in the U.K., has now been identified in 80. Both have been found in Canada. 

Health Canada would need to approve any booster or new vaccine against the B1351 variant before it could be administered here.

The prime minister confirmed Wednesday that Moderna will deliver the two million doses of COVID-19 vaccine it is contracted to provide Canada by the end of March. 

Justin Trudeau said Canada expects to receive 460,000 doses the week of March 8 and 840,000 doses beginning  March 22.

That’s in addition to the 518,000 Moderna shots that have been administered in this country already and the 168,000 doses that are set to arrive this week.

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