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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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Biden’s vaccine pledge ups pressure on rich countries to give more

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The United States on Thursday raised the pressure on other Group of Seven leaders to share their vaccine hoards to bring an end to the pandemic by pledging to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest countries.

The largest ever vaccine donation by a single country will cost the United States $3.5 billion but Washington expects no quid pro quo or favours for the gift, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden‘s move, on the eve of a summit of the world’s richest democracies, is likely to prompt other leaders to stump up more vaccines, though even vast numbers of vaccines would still not be enough to inoculate all of the world’s poor.

G7 leaders want to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 to try to halt the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.9 million people and devastated the global economy.

A senior Biden administration official described the gesture as a “major step forward that will supercharge the global effort” with the aim of “bringing hope to every corner of the world.” “We really want to underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives,” the official said, adding that Washington was not seeking favours in exchange for the doses.

Vaccination efforts so far are heavily correlated with wealth: the United States, Europe, Israel and Bahrain are far ahead of other countries. A total of 2.2 billion people have been vaccinated so far out of a world population of nearly 8 billion, based on Johns Hopkins University data.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. with the vaccines, delivering 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022.

The shots, which will be produced at Pfizer’s U.S. sites, will be supplied at a not-for-profit price.

“Our partnership with the U.S. government will help bring hundreds of millions of doses of our vaccine to the poorest countries around the world as quickly as possible,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam called for more to be done to increase global production of vaccines.

“Surely, these 500 million vaccine doses are welcome as they will help more than 250 million people, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need across the world,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead.

“We need a transformation toward more distributed vaccine manufacturing so that qualified producers worldwide can produce billions more low-cost doses on their own terms, without intellectual property constraints,” he said in a statement.

Another issue, especially in some poor countries, is the infrastructure for transporting the vaccines which often have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Biden has also backed calls for a waiver of some vaccine intellectual property rights but there is no international consensus yet on how to proceed.

The new vaccine donations come on top of 80 million doses Washington has already pledged to donate by the end of June. There is also $2 billion in funding earmarked for the COVAX programme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the White House said.

GAVI and the WHO welcomed the initiative.

Washington is also taking steps to support local production of COVID-19 vaccines in other countries, including through its Quad initiative with Japan, India and Australia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in St. Ives, England, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Caroline Copley in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Keith Weir;Editing by Leslie Adler, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Giles Elgood and Jane Merriman)

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Vaccines donated by the United States and China

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Both the United States and China have pledged large donations of COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world. Washington has promised 80 million doses, three-quarters of which will be delivered via the international vaccine initiative COVAX, in what has been seen as an effort to counter China’s widening vaccine diplomacy. It began deliveries last week.

China had shipped vaccines to 66 countries in the form of aid, according to state news agency Xinhua. Beijing has not disclosed an overall figure for its donations but Reuters calculations based on publicly available data show at least 16.57 million doses have been delivered. China has also pledged to supply 10 million doses to COVAX.

VACCINES DONATED BY U.S. (plan for the first 25 mln):

Regional partners and priority recipients

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Including Canada, Mexico, 1 mln to S.Korea in June

South Korea, West Bank and

Gaza, Ukraine, Kosovo,

Haiti, Georgia, Egypt,

Jordan, India, Iraq, Yemen,

United Nations

TOTAL 6 mln 1 mln

Allocations through COVAX

South and Central America

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Brazil, Argentina, Colombia,

Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador,

Paraguay, Bolivia,

Guatemala, El Salvador,

Honduras, Panama, Haiti,

Dominican Republic and other

Caribbean Community

(CARICOM) countries

TOTAL 6 mln

Asia

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

India, Nepal, Bangladesh,

Pakistan, Sri Lanka,

Afghanistan, Maldives,

Malaysia, Philippines,

Vietnam, Indonesia,

Thailand, Laos, Papua New

Guinea, Taiwan, and the

Pacific Islands

TOTAL 7 mln

Africa

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

To be selected in

coordination with the

African Union

TOTAL 5 mln

VACCINES DONATED BY CHINA (source – Reuters calculations and official data):

Asia Pacific

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Afghanistan 400,000

Bangladesh Second batch of First batch of 500,000 delivered

600,000 on May 12

Brunei 52,000 in Feb

Cambodia 1.7 mln as of April 28

Kyrgyzstan 150,000 in March

Laos 300,000 in Feb

800,000 in late March

300,000 in late April

Maldives 200,000 in early March

Mongolia 300,000 in late February

Myanmar 500,000 in early May

Nepal 800,000 in late March

1 mln in early June

Pakistan 500,000 in early Feb

250,000 in Feb

500,000 in March

Philippines 600,000 in late Feb

400,000 in late March

Sri Lanka 600,000 at end March

500,000 in late May

Thailand 500,000 in May

500,000 in June

Timor-Leste 100,000 100,000 in early June

TOTAL 11.052 million

Africa

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Angola 200,000 in late March

Algeria 200,000 200,000 in Feb

Botswana 200,000 in April

Cameroon 200,000 in April

Congo 100,000 100,000 in March

Egypt 600,000 in March

Ethiopia 300,000 in late March

Equatorial Guinea 100,000 in Feb

Guinea 200,000 in early March

Mozambique 200,000 in late Feb

Namibia 100,000 by early April

Niger 400,000 in late March

Sierra Leone 240,000 by late May

Togo 200,000 in April

Uganda 300,000

Zimbabwe 200,000 in Feb

200,000 in March

100,000 in May

TOTAL 3.74 million

South America

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Bolivia 100,000 in late Feb

100,000 in late March

Venezuela 500,000 in early March

TOTAL 700,000

Europe & Middle East

COUNTRY/TERRITORY PLEDGED DELIVERED

Belarus 100,000 in Feb

300,000 in May

Georgia 100,000 at end April

Iran 250,000 at end February

Iraq 50,000 in early March

Montenegro 30,000 in early March

North Macedonia 100,000 in May

Syria 150,000 in late April

TOTAL 1.08 million

 

(Reporting by Roxanne Liu and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Cooper Inveen in Dakar; Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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Coronavirus Worldwide right now

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Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus now:

Australia’s Melbourne to exit lockdown

Australia’s second largest city Melbourne will exit a hard lockdown as planned on Thursday night, Victoria state authorities said, although some restrictions on travel and gatherings would likely remain for another week.

After two weeks in a strict lockdown that forced people to remain at home except for essential business, Melbourne’s five million residents will get more freedom to step outside from 11:59 p.m. local time (1359 GMT) on Thursday.

However, people must stay within 25 km (15 miles) of their homes, officials said, in an effort to stop transmission during an upcoming long weekend. There will also be a total ban on house gatherings and masks will be mandatory indoors.

Deliveries of Thai-made AstraZeneca vaccines delayed

Malaysia and Taiwan are expecting deliveries of AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in Thailand to be delayed, officials said, the latest countries to report a holdup with orders from the Thai plant.

The delay comes amid concerns over AstraZeneca’s distribution plans in Southeast Asia, which depends on 200 million doses made by Siam Bioscience, a company owned by Thailand’s king that is making vaccines for the first time.

Any questions about Siam Bioscience meeting production targets are sensitive because King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its sole owner. Insulting Thailand’s monarchy is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Indonesia aims to speed up vaccinations

President Joko Widodo said on Wednesday he hoped Indonesia’s vaccination rollout will hit one million shots a day by July, as authorities opened up inoculations to anyone aged over 18 in Jakarta to contain increased transmission in the capital.

Health officials in the world’s fourth most populous country, which aims to vaccinate 181.5 million people by next year, are trying to speed up the rollout after facing some supply issues.

The president said he wanted vaccinations to hit a targeted 700,000 doses a day this month and then rise again.

Singapore finds Delta most prevalent among variants

Singapore has found the Delta variant of the coronavirus to be the most prevalent among local cases of variants of concern (VOCs), according to health ministry data, highlighting its level of infectiousness.

There were 449 local cases with VOCs as of May 31, of which 428 were the Delta variant first detected in India and nine of the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.

Singapore reported its 34th death due to COVID-19, taking its toll from the pandemic beyond the 33 casualties recorded during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak.

U.S. forming expert groups on lifting travel restrictions

The Biden administration is forming expert working groups with Canada, Mexico, the European Union and the United Kingdom to determine how best to safely restart travel after 15 months of pandemic restrictions, a White House official said on Tuesday.

Another U.S. official said the administration will not move quickly to lift orders that bar people from much of the world from entering the United States because of the time it will take for the groups to do their work.

The groups will be led by the White House COVID Response Team and the National Security Council and include the Centers for Disease Control and other U.S. agencies.

 

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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