Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

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What new strains of COVID-19 means for Albertans

By Sergio Sharif, February 21, 2021—

The past month has reawakened a familiar feeling. Variants of the coronavirus have begun to rise in numbers, similar to when the virus first appeared in Canada. Experts voiced their concerns and in briefings, present their graphs, presaging the imminent outbreaks. But like the first time around, the government has forgotten what past experiences can teach us. 

Newfoundland and Labrador — a province envied for their successful containment of the virus — just experienced its worst outbreak, which was due to the UK variant. The ferocity with which the virus ripped through the population pushed the province back into lockdown. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health for Newfoundland and Labrador, commented that the new variant could become the “predominant strain within weeks of first appearance.”

At a long-term care home in Ontario, 250 staff and residents were infected. Of the 128 residents, 127 were diagnosed with COVID-19, which was later revealed to be caused by the UK variant. Seventy-one residents died.

In a Mississauga apartment building, five separate and unrelated cases of another concerning variant appeared. Dr. Lawrence Loh, the medical officer of health for Peel Region in an interview with the CBC, suggested that it may have been a mere transient exposure in the hallways, in the elevator or in other ways which were previously thought to be low-risk. 

The catastrophe of previous waves may be made all the more worse in a potential upcoming wave, as the examples above have shown.

In previous waves, the liberties Albertans were asked to sacrifice could only be given up for so long, as businesses crumbled and social isolation took its toll. We opened up, and rightly so. This was done while acknowledging that there was a small risk still present. Now, with the emergence of new variants, the risk appears to be far higher. 

The circulation of new variants makes reopening far less feasible. The UK variant is estimated to be around 40 per cent more infectious and might even be deadlier. The other main variant of concern, first discovered in South Africa, is thought to reduce the effectiveness of vaccination and could also lead to reinfections. As of Feb. 20, the province has seen 269 cases of the UK and South African variants, far beyond the 25 around a month ago. Provincial modeling projects anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 variant cases by early March. Across the country many are concerned, leading one public health official in Toronto to even say she has “never been as worried about the future as [she is] today.” 

New and more infectious variants decrease the likelihood that Alberta could avert another crisis. We are at a critical point where the government’s decisions will determine the severity and length of the next wave. The push to reopen is disregarding what will certainly be a substantial resurgence, thrusting Albertans into another lockdown when it is too late.

Eventually, vaccination may end the pandemic, but not in time to stop the variants. It is unfortunate that the federal government has failed to procure the promised doses at a pace which could block the new variants from dominating. If there is anything to rejoice in however, it is that all individuals working or residing in long-term care homes in Alberta have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Sixty-six per cent of deaths in Alberta have been in long-term care, so with the current vaccination rollout there may be a substantial decrease in death, at least in that population. However, for those outside of long-term care the risk will become much higher, as the vaccine is yet to reach most in time

The hopeful part of this situation is that there is nothing different about how this virus spreads. The challenge is that it is more likely to spread to more people. The Alberta government has to strengthen public health measures and ensure that the contact tracing system is robust and doesn’t fail at such a low threshold of cases as it did in the second wave.

Key to contact tracing is the use of genomic sequencing to identify variants in the community. Genomic sequencing is the use of advanced technologies to read the genetic code of the virus and compare it to known sequences of the original coronavirus. Variants differ by changes in their genetic code, which arise from mistakes that happen as the virus replicates. Specific differences in the code are used to identify specific variants.

The Alberta government needs to expand its ability to genomically sequence positive cases and view it as a cost-saving measure, not a cost. Fortunately, there does appear to be a concrete plan. Public health authorities need to pinpoint each and every variant case and stop it from spreading. This can only be achieved if an adequate number of positive tests are analyzed genomically, allowing for identification of variants. Along with the new travel restrictions, there is nothing stopping us from preventing the variants from dominating. 

Furthermore, the government needs to appreciate the racial and socioeconomic disparities in this pandemic and ensure that the gulfs between disparate groups do not grow, especially in the face of more infectious variants. A recent outbreak at a Red Deer slaughterhouse is a prime example of the unequal devastation this pandemic has caused. Last spring a similar outbreak happened in a plant where 70 per cent of employees were from the Filipino community. In other high-risk settings, people who are minorities account for about 52 per cent of the nurse aide and patient service occupation provincially, and in Calgary, 71 per cent. To lessen the impact, people working in these settings need adequate sick leave pay which prevents them from having to choose between the safety of their coworkers and surviving financially.

Lastly, we need to remember to have compassion. This pandemic has had an unequal toll on the population, and some have seen their entire livelihoods destroyed. Many others have had their lives robbed of them far too early. Walking back on the plan to reopen, expanding the ability to track down the variants and having compassion for the most at-risk is the only way forward.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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