High-risk Albertans urged to get another vaccine dose as COVID-19 cases ticking up

This is a transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles within a heavily infected nasal cell.  (NIAID - image credit)
This is a transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles within a heavily infected nasal cell. (NIAID - image credit)

After trending downward for several months, COVID-19 is on the upswing in Alberta once again.

The province's respiratory virus dashboard shows a number of key indicators, including case counts, hospitalization numbers and positivity rates, are ticking up.

"Many jurisdictions in Canada have seen a slight bump in late April in the number of COVID cases, the positivity rate and also in their wastewater monitoring," said Dr. Dan Gregson, an infectious diseases specialist in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

There are likely a number of factors at play, he said.

"It's a combination of waning immunity and the virus becoming more transmissible and escaping your immune system that's been adapted to the prior strain."

The latest data from Alberta Health shows 114 people hospitalized with SARS CoV-2, an increase of more than two dozen in two weeks. Six patients are in intensive care.

At the University of Alberta Hospital, infectious diseases physician Dr. Stephanie Smith said the latest uptick isn't translating into a spike in severe COVID cases, but she is seeing a clear trend.

"What we are seeing is we have people being admitted for other things and then becoming infected with COVID in the hospital because of visitors or sharing a room," she said.

"Most of them are not getting severely ill. Obviously there are exceptional cases of patients that are severely immunocompromised that can get severe disease. But we do have treatments to try and prevent disease from becoming severe for those that pick up COVID in the hospital."

According to Smith, that's exacerbated by the strain on hospitals and overcrowding.

"We are so overcapacity in our hospitals, and that means patients are being put into hallways, and we have three people in rooms that are designed for two people, and that makes it really hard to prevent the spread of infection," said Smith.

"I would say that's probably our biggest challenge right now and why we're seeing transmission."

The Alberta Health Services website shows seven hospitals were reporting COVID-19 outbreaks as of April 30.

An enhanced masking directive, designed to prevent COVID-19 transmission, is no longer in place in AHS facilities.

Smith said many health workers on the wards where she works still wear masks routinely.

The province's COVID-19 death toll continues to rise. A total of 552 Albertan's have died due to the illness since Aug. 27, according to publicly available data.

Know your risk

Both doctors are urging Albertans to know their level of risk for severe disease and plan their immunizations accordingly.

"The important thing is for people who are high risk to really make sure that their vaccine is up to date. That's the easiest thing to do," said Gregson.

"If you're really high risk and you're going to places where there's lots of people, you can mask to reduce your risk."

High-risk Albertans — including seniors, immunocompromised individuals and First Nations, Metis and Inuit people — became eligible for additional doses of the XBB.1.5 vaccine on April 15, if it's been six months since their last shot.

According to Gregson, while COVID transmission dropped for a number of months, it never went away.

"We have constant background noise that's occurring all the time and then we have waves. The last big wave was in the fall of 2023.… Whether or not over the summer that goes down to zero or not, we'll wait and see," he said.

"It would be nice to have a break from this."