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Rise in untraced COVID-19 cases puts Alberta response at risk, infectious diseases expert warns – CBC.ca

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​The growing number of COVID-19 cases in the province without a known source of infection means the virus could be spreading through Alberta communities unchecked, an infectious diseases specialist warns.

“It dramatically lowers the efficiency of contact tracing,” said Craig Jenne, an associate professor at University of Calgary in department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases. 

“If we don’t know where you got it, it’s difficult to notify other people who also may have been exposed.” 

Not only are the higher rates making the virus more difficult to track, it will make it more difficult to identify which restrictions would be most effective in controlling it, Jenne said. 

The numbers should serve as a wake up call to Albertans, he said. 

“It makes it very difficult for us to have an accurate picture of where the virus is spreading in the community. What are the sources that are driving this? These are big problems.” 

Currently the source of two-thirds of the COVID-19 cases in Alberta is unknown.

Of the 3,768 new cases reported in Alberta between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, the source of infection could not yet be identified in 2,548, 67 per cent of cases, a percentage that is rising. 

In mid October, 43 per cent of Alberta’s newly-confirmed cases had an unknown source, with 37 per cent of active cases having an unknown source. 

But Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, has said the true percentage of unsolved cases is closer to 50 per cent. 

Rate concerning, Hinshaw says

During a news conference Wednesday, Hinshaw said the rate of unknown transmissions is concerning but the data should be examined with caution. 

Newly-reported cases have yet to be investigated, Hinshaw said. The number of unsolved cases could shrink from 67 per cent as contact tracers begin investigating each case in earnest, she said. 

For example, of the 6,110 active cases in the province Tuesday, only 53 per cent were of unknown origin.

“Because the volume of cases we’re seeing every day has been rising, and when we get a new case, an investigation has yet to take place,” Hinshaw said. 

“Many of those cases, we will be able to determine the source.”

Health Minister Tyler Shandro told reporters Wednesday the proportion isn’t a concern. 

“It’s just a matter of people getting their tests before the contact tracers have spoken to them,” Shandro said. 

The increasing rate of unknown cases comes at critical time with more people in hospital and in ICU for the disease than ever.

‘Critical juncture’

Adjusted for population, Alberta now has the second-highest number of active COVID-19 cases off all provinces.

Hinshaw has said the province is at a “critical juncture” in its bid to reverse the trend and suggested that a growing carelessness around COVID restrictions could exacerbate the problem. 

While health officials can’t pinpoint the source of all the new cases, there is a clear trend behind the spike in new transmissions, Hinshaw said. 

“We do know what the trends are in our own data and those trends match the transmission issues that we’re seeing in other provinces which are social gatherings,” she said. 

“They are times when people are spending time together in close contact, not wearing masks, not distancing, not saying home when they’re symptomatic and those are the things we’re really focused on.” 

Hinshaw warned if efforts to reverse the trend through voluntary measures fail, further restrictions could be imposed and soon.

“We’ll be watching very closely over the coming days to see if we’ve been able to start turning the corner with our current restrictions or if more restrictions are necessary.” 

Meanwhile, Alberta Health and the province is promising to reverse the trend by speeding up test turnaround times and bolstering its team of contact tracers. The contact tracing team, a workforce which has already doubled in size since the pandemic hit, will expand again.

More contact tracers on the way

Alberta’s staff of disease detectives will grow from 800 to 1,100 within the next few weeks.

“We are working to reduce the number of unknown cases as soon as possible,” Tom McMillan, Alberta Health spokesperson, said in a statement. 

“This is primarily being done by reducing wait times for testing and test results and speeding up contact tracing,” McMillan said. “We have seen wait times lower in recent days as a result of shifts to our strategy and AHS is hiring more contact tracers to expand their dedicated teams.” 

Contact tracing is a laborious but critical step in slowing the spread of the virus. Once a person tests positive for COVID, a team of public health begin the work of tracking their movements and close contacts.

“These folks are working, like all of our public health folks, working really long hours,” Shandro said.

Those who may have been infected are informed, tested and often asked to quarantine. The process can involve a few simple  phone calls or be complex and protracted, depending on how many people the infected person has come in contact with. 

“The system is working seven days a week,” Shandro said.

“If I could speak on behalf of our contact tracers, they wish that Albertans could follow the public health guidance so there would be less pressure on them but it’s also why we’re continuing to hire contact tracers.” 

‘No excuse’ 

Jenne said increasing the number of contact tracers and faster testing will help.

Jenne said the job of contact tracers has become more difficult in recent months, he said.  

“These are big problems, but they’re also suggesting that people are perhaps having too many contacts in the community. 

“What is perhaps even more disturbing is we are seeing increased reports of people not being forthcoming with their known contacts as well.” 

Even so, the success of Alberta’s fight against COVID-19 will hinge largely on individual decisions, he said. 

“COVID fatigue, it’s real and it’s understandable,” he said. “But it’s also not an excuse. 

“We have to do what we can now to not put ourselves in a situation where the public health officials have no option but to bring in restrictions.”

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What you need to know about COVID-19 in Ottawa on Sunday, Nov. 29 – CBC.ca

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Recent developments:

What’s the latest?

Ottawa reported 46 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday and one new death.

Ottawa Public Health reduced the city’s overall death toll by one, however, after an investigation revealed that two earlier COVID-19 deaths could no longer be tied to the virus.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) says it supports the province’s decision to dispatch education and enforcement teams to the region to ensure businesses are following COVID-19 protocols.

The teams will show up in the EOHU later this week, although the head of the chamber of commerce in Cornwall, Ont., says businesses aren’t to blame for spreading COVID-19.

In western Quebec, public health officials recorded 33 new cases Saturday and one new death.

How many cases are there?

As of Saturday, 8,379 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Ottawa. There are 309 known active cases, 7,698 cases now considered resolved and 372 people who have died of COVID-19.

Public health officials have reported more than 13,700 COVID-19 cases across eastern Ontario and western Quebec, including more than 12,300 resolved cases.

Ninety people have died of COVID-19 elsewhere in eastern Ontario, along with 80 in western Quebec. 

CBC Ottawa is profiling those who’ve died of COVID-19. If you’d like to share your loved one’s story, please get in touch.

What can I do?

Both Ontario and Quebec are telling people to limit close contact only to those they live with, or one other home if people live alone, to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Ontario says this will apply through December’s holidays, with people who live away from home such as post-secondary students asked to reduce close contacts for 10 to 14 days before going back.

Quebec has shared what it will take to have at most two small holiday gatherings next month. Rules won’t be loosened until mid-January at the earliest.

Travel from one region to another discouraged throughout the Outaouais.

WATCH: Vanier BIA head urges people to shop local this holiday season

Nathalie Carrier, executive director of the Vanier BIA, is asking residents to support local businesses this holiday season to help those shops stay afloat during the pandemic. 0:48

Ontario says people shouldn’t travel to a lower-level region from a higher one and some lower-level health units want residents to stay put to curb the spread.

Ottawa is currently in the orange zone of the provincial pandemic scale, which allows organized gatherings and restaurants, gyms and theatres to bring people inside.

Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, has said Ottawa’s situation is stable and people should focus on managing risks and taking precautions, such as seeing a few friends outside at a distance, to bring the spread down further.

Communities in the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) and Eastern Ontario health units are under yellow zone restrictions, while the Hastings Prince Edward region will enter the zone just after midnight tonight.

That means restaurant hours, table limits and rules around capacity fall somewhere between those in place in Ottawa and the rest of eastern Ontario, which is currently green, the lowest level.

In Gatineau and the surrounding area, which is one of Quebec’s red zones, health officials are asking residents not to leave home unless it’s essential.

There is no indoor dining at restaurants and gyms, cinemas and performing arts venues are all closed.

The rest of western Quebec is orange, which allows private gatherings of up to six people and organized ones up to 25 — more in seated venues.

A sign at the Mont Ste-Marie ski hill east of Kazabazua, Que., reminds skiers to abide by COVID-19 rules on Nov. 26, 2020. The ski hill, located in one of the province’s orange zones, opened this weekend. (Christian Milette/Radio-Canada)

What about schools?

There have been about 200 schools in the wider Ottawa-Gatineau region with a confirmed case of COVID-19:

Few have had outbreaks, which are declared by a health unit in Ontario when there’s a reasonable chance someone who has tested positive caught COVID-19 during a school activity.

Distancing and isolating

The novel coronavirus primarily spreads through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes or speaks onto someone or something. These droplets can hang in the air.

People can be contagious without symptoms.

This means people should take precautions such as staying home when sick, keeping hands and frequently touched surfaces clean, socializing outdoors as much as possible and maintaining distance from anyone they don’t live with — even with a mask on.

Ontario has abandoned its concept of social circles.

Masks are mandatory in indoor public settings in Ontario and Quebec and should be worn outdoors when people can’t distance from others. Three-layer non-medical masks with a filter are recommended.

A pedestrian in a mask walks by a sign telling people to wear masks in Ottawa’s ByWard Market because of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-November 2020. (David Richard/Radio-Canada)

Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate, as should those who’ve been ordered to do so by their local public health unit. The duration depends on the circumstances in both Ontario and Quebec.

Health Canada recommends older adults and people with underlying medical conditions and/or weakened immune systems stay home as much as possible. 

Anyone who has travelled recently outside Canada must go straight home and stay there for 14 days.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

COVID-19 can range from a cold-like illness to a severe lung infection, with common symptoms including fever, a cough, vomiting and the loss of taste or smell. 

Less common symptoms include chills, headaches and pink eye. Children can develop a rash.

If you have severe symptoms, call 911.

Mental health can also be affected by the pandemic and resources are available to help.

Where to get tested

In eastern Ontario:

Anyone seeking a test should book an appointment.

Ontario recommends only getting tested if you have symptoms, or if you’ve been told to by your health unit or the province.

People without symptoms, but who are part of the province’s targeted testing strategy, can make an appointment at select pharmacies.

Ottawa has nine permanent test sites, with mobile sites wherever demand is particularly high.

Kingston’s test site is at the Beechgrove Complex. The area’s other site is in Napanee.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit has sites in Alexandria, Cornwall, Hawkesbury, Limoges, Rockland and Winchester.

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark health unit has permanent sites in Almonte, Brockville, Kemptville and Smiths Falls and a mobile test site visiting smaller communities.

People can arrange a test in Bancroft and Picton by calling the centre or Belleville and Trenton online.

Renfrew County residents should call their family doctor or 1-844-727-6404 for a test or with questions, COVID-19-related or not. Test clinic locations are posted weekly.

In western Quebec:

Tests are strongly recommended for people with symptoms or who have been in contact with someone with symptoms.

Outaouais residents can make an appointment in Gatineau seven days a week at 135 blvd. Saint-Raymond or 617 avenue Buckingham.

They can now check the approximate wait time for the Saint-Raymond site.

There are recurring clinics by appointment in communities such as Gracefield, Val-des-Monts and Fort-Coulonge.

Call 1-877-644-4545 with questions, including if walk-in testing is available nearby.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis:

Akwesasne has had its most known COVID-19 cases of the pandemic this month, with 22 and counting in its Ontario portion and more on the American side of the border. Its council is asking residents to avoid unnecessary travel.

Akwesasne schools and its Tsi Snaihne Child Care Centre are temporarily closed to in-person learning. It has a COVID-19 test site available by appointment only.

Anyone returning to the community on the Canadian side of the international border who’s been farther than 160 kilometres away — or visited Montreal — for non-essential reasons is asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte reported its first confirmed case this month.

People in Pikwakanagan can book a COVID-19 test by calling 613-625-2259. 

Anyone in Tyendinaga who’s interested in a test can call 613-967-3603.

Inuit in Ottawa can call the Akausivik Inuit Family Health Team at 613-740-0999 for service, including testing, in Inuktitut or English on weekdays.

For more information

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COVID-19 cases in Canada remain on troubling course, Tam says, amid rising numbers – CANOE

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Article content continued

The Saskatchewan suspension applies to hockey and curling leagues and dance studios.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority posted notices Saturday of COVID-19 exposure risks at curling and recreation centres at Christopher Lake and Shellbrook. Those curling or socializing at either of the two facilities last month must self-isolate for 14 days, the health authority said.

In British Columbia, Fraser Health announced the closure of an elementary school in Surrey after confirming 16 COVID-19 cases.

Newton Elementary School will close for two weeks, said Fraser Health.

B.C. reported a daily record of 911 COVID-19 cases Friday. The province will update its numbers Monday.

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People must continue to practise physical distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home as much as possible, said a newly appointed member of B.C. Premier John Horgan’s cabinet.

“I just think it’s important for us to be thoughtful and caring, but at the same time it’s critical that people follow the rules because it’s vital to be able to keep our schools open and keep as many of our business open as possible,” said Ravi Kahlon, whose ministry includes economic recovery.

Figures from New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador show more modest increases of four and two cases, respectively.

Prince Edward Island reported two new COVID-19 cases, but they involved young males aged 10 and 19.

There were 14 new cases in Nova Scotia and five COVID-19 cases in Nunavut.

Tam redoubled her calls for Canadians to heed public health advice, limit their social interactions and practice physical distancing in a bid to bring surging case counts under control.

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COVID-19 cases in Canada remain on troubling course, Tam says, amid rising numbers – NiagaraFallsReview.ca

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Canada remains on a troubling path for new COVID-19 infections as case counts continue to mount, the country’s top doctor said Saturday.

The most recent infection rates indicate Canada is on track to hit as many as 10,000 new cases a day by next month, Dr. Theresa Tam said.

“If we continue on the current pace, our longer range models continue to forecast significant increases in daily case counts and estimate that there could be up to 10,000 cases reported daily by mid-December,” Tam said in a written statement.

“Right now, we have a window of opportunity to act collectively together with public health authorities to bring the infection rate down to a safer trajectory.”

Canada is currently recording caseloads at about half that level, with the most recent seven-day average standing at 5,335 between Nov. 20 and Nov. 26.

Tam said Canada is also averaging 76 deaths a day and more than 2,100 people in hospital.

People 80 years and older are experiencing Canada’s highest COVID-19 death rate, and there are now more and larger outbreaks in long-term care facilities, hospitals, group living settings, Indigenous communities and remote areas, she said.

“Those developments are deeply concerning as they put countless Canadians at risk of life-threatening illness, cause serious disruptions to health services and present significant challenges for areas not adequately equipped to manage complex medical emergencies,” Tam said.

Her assessment came as case counts continued to soar in numerous provinces.

Quebec set a new single-day record with 1,480 new infections Saturday as the provincial death toll crossed the 7,000 threshold.

Alberta also broke its own record, reporting 1,731 new cases of the virus on Saturday. It also counted five new deaths.

Ontario logged case numbers just shy of Friday’s one-day record as it reported 1,822 new diagnoses in the past 24 hours.

Case numbers also jumped sharply in Manitoba, where officials recorded 487 new infections and 10 new deaths.

Among those who died was a boy under the age of 10, officials said, though they offered no other details.

Saskatchewan reported 197 COVID-19 cases and one death Saturday.

The province ordered the suspension of team sports earlier this week until Dec. 17 after confirmed COVID-19 cases among several minor and recreational hockey teams.

The Saskatchewan suspension applies to hockey and curling leagues and dance studios.

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The Saskatchewan Health Authority posted notices Saturday of COVID-19 exposure risks at curling and recreation centres at Christopher Lake and Shellbrook. Those curling or socializing at either of the two facilities last month must self-isolate for 14 days, the health authority said.

In British Columbia, Fraser Health announced the closure of an elementary school in Surrey after confirming 16 COVID-19 cases.

Newton Elementary School will close for two weeks, said Fraser Health.

B.C. reported a daily record of 911 COVID-19 cases Friday. The province will update its numbers Monday.

People must continue to practise physical distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home as much as possible, said a newly appointed member of B.C. Premier John Horgan’s cabinet.

“I just think it’s important for us to be thoughtful and caring, but at the same time it’s critical that people follow the rules because it’s vital to be able to keep our schools open and keep as many of our business open as possible,” said Ravi Kahlon, whose ministry includes economic recovery.

Figures from New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador show more modest increases of four and two cases, respectively.

Prince Edward Island reported two new COVID-19 cases, but they involved young males aged 10 and 19.

There were 14 new cases in Nova Scotia and five COVID-19 cases in Nunavut.

Tam redoubled her calls for Canadians to heed public health advice, limit their social interactions and practice physical distancing in a bid to bring surging case counts under control.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2020.

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