Alberta confirms case of Omicron variant

Alberta has recorded its first case of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the case has been confirmed in a person who recently travelled to Nigeria and the Netherlands. That person arrived about a week ago and was tested at that time.

“The individual tested positive while asymptomatic and I can confirm this individual has not left quarantine since their arrival from international travel,” Hinshaw said, adding that person and their household have been notified and that measures are in place to prevent spread.

“I would like to remind all Albertans that neither this individual nor their household members have done anything wrong,” Hinshaw added, noted there has been stigma over the course of the pandemic.

Confirmation of the variant case in Alberta comes after Ontario reported four cases of Omicron and that it is reviewing several others. B.C. and Quebec have also confirmed their first cases.

Hinshaw continues to try to ease concerns, saying she doesn’t want Albertans to be alarmed.

“As I mentioned yesterday, we anticipated the arrival of this variant in the province eventually based on what we have seen with previous strains of COVID-19,” she explained. “We are well prepared for this eventuality and have the necessary tools in place to monitor this case and any potential spread of the variant.”

Alberta’s top doctor says the goal is to “delay the spread of Omicron while we learn more about it.”

“At this time, this is the only confirmed case of Omicron in the province,” Hinshaw assured.

How Alberta identifies the variant

In Alberta, Hinshaw says all new confirmed cases of COVID-19 “have a screen done.”

“[It’s] a quicker process that can identify known mutations for previous variants. So that screen will tell us, is this a case that has a Delta mutation?” she explained, noting Delta continues to be the dominant variant in the province.

For all cases that don’t come back positive as Delta, Hinshaw says whole genome sequencing is done.

“It does take a little bit of time between when we identify a case on PCR testing, and then it can take one to two weeks before we move through all of those processes to determine an Omicron variant that is confirmed. That’s why in the meantime we are taking an approach based on a history of recent international travel so that someone who is a close contact of a confirmed case with a recent history of international travel from any country, that we are doing additional close contact tracing, notification, offering PCR testing even to those who are asymptomatic of that particular group,” she explained.

Despite confirmation of Omicron in Alberta, Hinshaw says it does not change the current risk.

Pointing to current measures in place to slow COVID-19 spread, Alberta’s top doctor says officials continue to monitor the situation.

Many unknowns about Omicron

With the emergence of the new variant, Hinshaw is urging Albertans to continue taking precautions to help stop the spread of COVID-19. They include being vaccinated, avoiding crowded indoor places, keeping gatherings small, wearing masks, and washing hands.

Hinshaw says what we know about the Omicron variant is that it has “a large number of mutations.”

“Most of what we know is really based on the genetic sequencing, where we look at all of the genes in this particular variant. We know there are a large number of mutations present on the spike protein, which is the protein that is typically the target of neutralizing antibodies that are generated both after an infection and also after someone receives the vaccine,” she explained, adding researchers are still learning how those mutations and others impact the behaviour of the virus.

In settings where the Omicron variant has been detected in high numbers, Hinshaw says cases have mostly been mild and identified in younger people, meaning it’s difficult to tell if there are differences in outcomes.

“There seems to potentially be a bit of a higher risk of reinfection when someone’s previously been infected. This variant, again it’s very early days, but there is this early indication that possibly there may be a higher risk of reinfection post-previous infection,” she added.

It’s unclear at this time whether the variant will affect vaccine effectiveness, Hinshaw noted.

The World Health Organization says while the new variant has a high chance of reinfection, being vaccinated will help prevent any severe outcomes.

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New findings indicate the latest variant already appeared in Europe close to a week before South Africa warned of it.

Scientists are concerned that Omicron could spread even faster than previous variants of concern, though many unknowns about the mutation remain.

The confirmation of Canada’s first cases came after the federal government brought in a new travel ban, restricting foreign visitors from a handful of countries in southern Africa.

On Tuesday, the federal government expanded that list of countries.

In addition to reporting the first Omicron case in Alberta, the province reported on Tuesday 238 new cases of COVID-19, with 434 people being treated in hospital. Of that number, 81 patients are in the ICU.

Six deaths have been reported since Monday.

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