Doctors, school advocates call for more detailed information on Alberta variant cases

As Alberta’s variant case numbers slowly climb, there are calls for the province to be more transparent with its data.

On Thursday, the Alberta government reported 41 new variant cases, bringing the total so far to 775.

Those numbers came on the same day Ontario launched a new dashboard including detailed information on variants of concern.

The dashboard — which the province’s health ministry says will be updated daily — includes information on average daily variant case counts, percentage of cases that are variants of concern and how quickly the variants are reproducing.

People in Ontario — where 42 per cent of COVID-19 cases are variants of concern — now have real-time access to how the variant is moving through their community.

Calls for more transparency

While Alberta’s variant cases are not spiking as dramatically as Ontario’s, they are on the upswing.

For the first time on Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer officer of health gave information on that increase.

During her daily update, Dr. Deena Hinshaw told Albertans variant cases accounted for nine per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province — up from three per cent at the end of January.

“I’m concerned because we see the variant numbers progressively — although relatively slowly — increasing, that we may be heading for a third wave,” said Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s Pandemic Response Committee.

“The worry is that we’re now progressively easing our restrictions at a time when we’re seeing more of these variants in the community.”

Gibney is particularly worried because a new study released this week shows the highly contagious B117 variant had a significantly higher death rate in Britain.

He’d like to see Alberta follow Ontario’s lead and publish a daily dashboard of information on variants of concern.

“It’s very, very clear — very open. All the information is there for everyone to see on an ongoing basis. We can kind of interpret the same data here, but you have to wait a week more or less to get a sense of what the average numbers are to make any sense of them,” said Gibney.

“From my perspective I certainly have found other provinces to be much more open in their communications. You always have a sense they’re holding something behind their back when Alberta Health gives their [press conferences].”

The provincial government doesn’t appear eager to release more detailed information on variant cases.

As of Wednesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw told Albertans variant cases accounted for nine per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province — up from three per cent at the end of January. (The Canadian Press/NIAID-RML via AP)

“We currently do not have plans to change how we report variant cases of concern,” an Alberta Health spokesperson said in a statement.

“But our site is constantly evolving and we are continuing to look at how we can improve and expand the information we share with Albertans.”

What we don’t know

The Alberta government reports variant cases daily, but it has said those numbers should be interpreted with caution because there can be a delay in processing test results.

The source of variant cases is not reported regularly. As a result, it is unclear how many are travel- or outbreak-related and how many have no connection to a known COVID-19 case, which makes it difficult to assess the level of community transmission.

With the exception of an outbreak at Edmonton retirement residence Churchill Manor, the province is not identifying which COVID-19 outbreaks are linked to variant cases.

Schools with variant cases are not identified either. The province does not post the R-value for variants. And Albertans are not told how many variant cases have led to hospitalizations or deaths.

What we do know

Alberta publishes variant cases daily, broken down by type (either B117 or B.1351) and by health zone.

And for the first time on Wednesday, the province provided information showing the increase in variant cases as a percentage of active cases had grown from three per cent to nine per cent over a six-week period.

“Having said that in other jurisdictions they have seen much more rapid growth of variants of concern as a proportion of all COVID cases — going from three to four per cent to well over half of all cases in just six weeks,” Hinshaw said at the time.

“This means that our health measures — both the overall restrictions as well as the targeted measures for variant cases — are working to slow the growth.”

Occasionally, when asked, the province will provide a tally of schools with variant cases including case numbers and how many schools are determined to have had in-school transmission.

Variants in schools

“We hear from a lot of parents that are concerned about transparency,” said Wing Li with the advocacy group Support our Students Alberta.

The group has been calling for the province to share much more information about how variants are impacting schools, including regular updates on the number of schools with variant cases, case numbers and transmission rates.

“They don’t update the information openly and it takes reporters asking maybe multiple times and it’s these back channels of information that isn’t going to really reach everybody who is trying to access that information,” she said.

“Do we know the rate of variant spread in schools? Not really, because the rate at which information is given is sparse and there’s delays in between.”

Li also questions why parents aren’t told when their children’s schools have confirmed variant cases — something she says leads to fear and speculation.

“It’s kind of like a black hole situation where I guess you just wait and see what schools get shut down,” said Li.

“Have more real-time updated data, with the zones even, with where these schools are being impacted.”

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