156 Albertans in quarantine after returning from southern Africa countries

CALGARY –

There are 156 Albertans in quarantine after returning from countries in southern Africa over fears of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Premier Jason Kenney said Monday.

No cases have been identified in the province, he added.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Sunday Alberta Health is working with officials across the country to monitor the spread of the altered virus.

Canada has imposed a travel ban on several countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, Estwatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia.

Foreign nationals who have travelled to any of those countries in the past 14 days will not be permitted entry into Canada.

“Public health officials have contacted individuals in Alberta who have travelled from one of the countries of interest in the past 14 days,” said Hinshaw.

“These individuals must take precautionary actions to quarantine for 14 days from their return date and get tested.”

There have been at least two cases of the Omicron variant detected in Ottawa, are both in people who travelled from Nigeria, which is not yet on the list of countries affected by the travel ban. There is one confirmed case in Quebec as well. 

That list is expected to expand as G7 health ministers are holding an emergency meeting on Monday to deal with the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

The strain has been detected in over a dozen countries around the globe, including Canada.

Hinshaw also said the Omicron variant re-enforces the need for Albertans to be vaccinated.

“This is a reminder of how important getting the vaccine is, as having a complete vaccination series has historically provided a high level of protection against severe outcomes even with new variants of concern,” she said.

Infectious disease expert Isaac Bogosh agrees, telling CTV it’s unlikely the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will completely defeat the vaccines protective effects.

“We’ll see to what extent, if any, there’s erosion of protection from immunity, but I don’t think you are going to have a variant that emerges overnight that suddenly erases completely the protective benefit we have seen from vaccines at this point,” he said.

University of Calgary infectious disease specialist Dr. Craig Jenne says there isn’t enough data to determine what type of impact the new variant will have. 

“We need to be watching how this moves through communities, how it moves through vaccinated or doesn’t move through vaccinated people, before we really know what the impact of those mutations will be,” said Jenne. 

He adds that now is not the time for government and health officials to lower its guard, suggesting travel restrictions will not be enough. 

“What it might do is it might slow it down if we have restrictions to the hotspots where there’s lots of virus,” he said. 

“But it’s a double-edged sword because if we rely on those as our principle line of defense, these travel restrictions, sometimes it means we’re letting our guard down on other fronts.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday that it is not yet clear if the new Omicron coronavirus variant is more transmissible than other variants. It is also unclear if it causes more severe disease.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with omicron,” said WHO officials in a statement.

PCR testing does detect the Omicron variant and studies are still underway to see if rapid antigen tests are capable of detecting the mutated virus.

Also on Monday, Hinshaw announced 806 new cases of COVID-19 identiifed over the weekend, including 325 on Friday, 253 on Saturday and 228 on Sunday. As well, seven new deaths were reported over the weekend.

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