It’s been nearly two months since Alberta allowed for more opportunities for children and youth to take part in sports-related activities. On Monday night, the premier suggested it’s possible that could be linked to a concerning trend amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have seen some worrisome signs of growing viral transmission among school-aged children in Alberta, and (chief medical officer of health) Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw believes that is likely linked to the relaxation of extra-curricular activities such as sports,” Premier Jason Kenney said during a livestream on social media. “It clearly was not happening through in-class instruction… but has apparently been accelerated by some of those athletic activities.
“We just need to keep this thing under control for a few more weeks until we’ve got enough vaccines to have a real protective effect on our population.”
Kenney added that while the pandemic has taught him to “never say never,” the government does not currently have any plans to hit pause on in-school learning.
In early February, the province announced youths 18 and under would be able to take part in “limited group physical activities” such as practices or physical conditioning activities for indoor and outdoor minor sports.
While playing actual games is not allowed, up to 10 people can take part in such activities at a single site as long as a number of precautions are followed, including that physical distance is maintained between participants (three metres when inside and two metres when outside) and that everyone is masked when they are not taking part in the training activity.
Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, told Global News that while many people — especially young Albertans — were vigilant about following public health measures at the beginning of the pandemic, he believes some people have had difficulty maintaining focus on that as of late.
“I think we are seeing more activity, especially with a lot of sanctioned activities — a lot of indoor activities are now opened up — and so people are getting infected,” he said.
In a statement issued to Global News on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Alberta Health said that as of Monday, 22 per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province were in school-aged children and youth.
“We are seeing a concerning rise in cases in all age groups, including school-aged Albertans,” Tom McMillan said in an email. “At this time, activities outside of school, including sports and socializing, are playing a key role in spreading the virus among young people.
“We do not have a specific breakdown of transmission linked to sports specifically. However, we have seen reports of cases linked to all areas and elements of young peoples’ lives.”
Wing Li, a spokesperson for Support our Students Alberta, a non-profit public education advocacy group, said her organization has “been seeing that from the ground — reports that school sports (are) leading to possible transmission.”
Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, said where sports are being played is a logical place to believe youth and children could be spreading COVID-19.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exclusively due to that but I’m sure that is contributing to the rising cases in those age groups,” she said. “I think in the past, people were maybe a little bit less aware of the possibility of transmission among children, just given how rare it was.
“I think people need to be a little bit more attuned to the fact children can transmit COVID(-19).”
McMillan noted that if proper precautions are not followed, “youth sporting activities have a high risk of spread due to exertion of participants, and potential mixing and mingling.”
“As community transmission and positivity rates increase, there is also an increased risk of introducing the virus into these settings,” he said.
On Tuesday, Alberta Health said the province’s positivity rate was at 7.7 per cent and that 576 new COVID-19 cases had been identified over the past 24 hours. Nearly 58 per cent of those new cases were identified as involving variants of concern.
“It is vital that children, youth, and parents all follow the rules currently in place for sporting activities,” McMillan said.
“This long weekend, it is important that we all continue following the rules and limiting in-person interactions whenever possible.”
The president of the Edmonton Minor Soccer Association said he is still hopeful children in Alberta’s capital will be able to take part in games in some capacity this season.
“We don’t what the restrictions are going to be, we don’t know what the protocol is going to be — we don’t know nothing,” Mario Charpentier said.
“We’re just registering kids and hopefully we’ll have some kind of outdoor season.”
–With files from Global News’ Fletcher Kent
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler has highlighted “shocking evidence” which came to light at the Senate Inquiry into COVID on Tuesday which indicates the majority of vulnerable Australians are not fully vaccinated.
“You’ll remember that phase 1a, the vaccination of our most vulnerable members of the community, aged care residents, disability facility residents and their staff were supposed to be completed by Easter, that is what Scott Morrison promised,” he said.
Mr Butler said the evidence showed two-thirds of aged care residents still have not been fully vaccinated and “shockingly” more than 99 per cent of residents in disability facilities have not been fully vaccinated.
“Australians living with disability have been abandoned by Scott Morrison in this vaccine rollout.”
Foodfare employee Jackie Sandul is looking forward to some peace of mind as Manitoba’s COVID-19 immunization strategy is slated to expand Friday.
On Wednesday, Manitoba officials released new details for expanding vaccination eligibility to adults living in certain geographic areas with high rates of COVID-19 spread or more severe outcomes.
Certain front-line workers, including grocery store workers like Sandul, will be part of the prioritization.
“It makes me safer. My employees and everybody in general around this area,” said Sandul, who is a cashier, supervisor and stockperson at the Foodfare on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.
“Germs are passed by touch. If you’re touching someone’s money, what do we do? Touching their cards, touching their groceries. When you’re scanning it through the till, you don’t know what they’ve touched or where they’ve been.”
Sandul, a 45-year-old with diabetes, is already eligible for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. But knowing she’ll be prioritized through the province’s immunization plan adds a level of comfort because she won’t have to worry much longer about picking up the novel coronavirus at work, she said.
Manitoba’s vaccine task force has been reviewing public health data from the second wave and so far into Wave 3 to determine which parts of the province have seen high levels of coronavirus transmission and where residents have had more severe outcomes after contracting COVID-19.
They have also been reviewing which professions put people at greatest risk of picking up SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Front-line workers serving hot spot communities at a school, food processing facility, food establishment such as a restaurant and grocery or convenience store will be prioritized.
People working as child-care or daycare providers, food or public health inspectors, or workplace safety and health officers will be prioritized too.
United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832 has been pushing for such a shift for grocery store employees for a while now, said president Jeff Traeger.
“We owe a debt of gratitude to these people that have been doing this work, because we all have to eat and we all have to shop to get our food. They’ve gone to work each and every day throughout the pandemic to make sure that our community keeps running,” he said.
“If there’s any way that we can reduce the risk, like putting them higher on the vaccine priority list, we should be doing that.”
Traeger would have liked to have seen security guards, who often work in places like grocery stores, be added to the priority list too.
The upcoming changes to vaccine eligibility will be a huge boost for morale for school staff, said Chris Goring, principal of Isaac Brock School, a nursery to Grade 9 school in Winnipeg’s West End.
“It’s going to validate the hard work that staff have been doing in the school, not just teachers — educational assistants, custodians, administrators, clerical staff,” said Goring.
“It’s going to be peace of mind for them when they go home to their families.… It’s going to help us carry through the remainder of the school year and keep our schools safe.”
Shaun Jeffrey, CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, appreciated public health officials recognized restaurant employees were at greater risk, he said.
The problem was Jeffrey learned about the changes the same time the general public did.
“Our industry looks to us for guidance and for feedback and education on what’s happening in Manitoba. We need to be brought up to speed on what the province’s plans are so that we can distribute that and communicate that in an effective manner,” he said.
People booking appointments will be asked for proof of employment, such as a workplace ID or letters from employers. In some cases, they may be asked to simply say they work in an eligible industry. They will be asked for proof of employment on the day of the vaccine appointment as well.
More essential workers may be added to the priority list as more vaccine doses become available, said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba’s vaccine task force, during a Wednesday news conference.
The list of hot spots should be released Friday. Geographic areas are deemed hot spots based on previous COVID-19 transmission rates, population density and socio-economics such as race, average income and housing, said Reimer.
The people CBC News spoke with for this story agreed it makes sense to prioritize people working in communities hardest hit by COVID-19.
But Traeger believes all grocery store workers ought to be prioritized because of the amount of contact those employees have with the public, he said.
SASKATOON — Nazeem Muhajarine says he feels a sense of relief after receiving his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine last week at a centre in Saskatoon.
“It was just so well-organized and run. I felt completely safe,” Muhajarine said in an interview.
The professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan said the province is making great strides quickly getting shots into arms, but he’s concerned some people are being left behind.
Premier Scott Moe touted during question period Wednesday that Saskatchewan is leading the country when it comes to administering first vaccinations.
“Our way through this pandemic, everyone’s plan to get through this pandemic, is to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Moe said.
More than 365,000 doses of vaccine have been given in Saskatchewan. Health officials say 52 per cent of residents over the age of 40 have received their first shot.
It puts Saskatchewan — with a population of just under 1.18 million — ahead of other provinces when it comes to doses delivered per capita. Data from a COVID-19 vaccination tracker, run by University of Saskatchewan students using federal and provincial data, suggests the province in outpacing Ontario and Quebec.
Moe credits his Saskatchewan Party’s “robust vaccination plan,” which he says will be augmented in the coming days. Eligibility for all vaccines is being lowered to 44 on Thursday, except for in the north where it will go down to 40. It’s expected to drop to 40 for the general population by Wednesday.
Muhajarine said there’s much to applaud about the vaccine rollout. The choice, initially, to use age-based eligibility meant it was easy to understand and targeted those who were more likely to experience severe outcomes if infected, he said.
Drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinics have also been successful, said Muhajarine. One providing mass immunizations in Regina as the capital has became a hot spot for variants has expecially worked well.
Muhajarine said his own experience shows that organization at larger mass vaccination sites is also commendable.
However, the professor said now that vulnerable senior populations are immunized and there are highly contagious new strains, the province may be missing the mark.
Getting the most vaccinations out fastest is just part of a good public health response, he said, but surging infections and hospitalizations mean the response should now be targeted to those most affected.
“Workplace spreads and outbreaks have been quite prevalent,” Muhajarine said. “That’s been a huge contributor in Regina and has been a contributor in Saskatoon as well.”
There were 231 new cases in Saskatchewan on Wednesday and four more deaths, including a person in their 30s another in their 40s. The others were over 70. There were 185 people in hospital and 49 in intensive care.
Provincial public health orders were tightened recently as officials warned the more transmissible variant strains were becoming dominant.
Muhajarine said the recent deaths of influential Cree teacher Victor Thunderchild, 55, in Prince Albert and well-known chef Warren Montgomery, 42, in Regina are examples of people in high-risk work environments who weren’t able to get vaccinations under the age-eligibility plan.
He said Saskatchewan should consider following Ontario and Manitoba, which are pivoting vaccination plans to target neighbourhoods where people have a higher risk of contracting the virus.
It should also consider socio-economic factors, including how many residents are in a household and the type of jobs people have, he added.
One example would be neighbourhoods with multi-generational households and where many people work service jobs facing the public. Congregate living facilities such as shelters and correctional centres would be another, he said.
Muhajarine said teachers and other essential workers should also get priority.
Every region in the country is seeing benefits to targeting areas and occupations where the pandemic’s third wave has taken hold, he suggested
“That is not something to be trivialized in this kind of complex and mass undertaking.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.
— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg
The Canadian Press
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