Post-secondary students in Alberta stay online during the Omicron peak

Previous spikes in wave of infection in Alberta linked to more public health restrictions, says researcher

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Post-secondary institutions in Alberta have delayed the return to personal learning as new national models suggest Omicron infections may soon peak in Canada.

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The University of Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the University of Alberta, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and the University of Lethbridge will continue virtual classes for at least another six weeks.

Students who have taken online classes since returning from vacation were able to return to campus on Feb. 28.

In a statement released Friday, University of Calgary president Ed McCauley said early data shows the fifth wave of COVID-19 in Alberta is expected to peak in early February.

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“Our decision to temporarily not return to face-to-face teaching and learning will allow the University of Calgary to play a role in reducing the spread,” McCauley said. “This should ease the pressure on our healthcare system at this critical time.”

Nicole Schmidt, president of the student union at the University of Calgary, said the union supports the university’s decision to expand online learning as ‘s students want to be sure that when they attend in-person classes and lectures, they do so in a safe manner.”

The provincial government should begin purchasing masks and test kits for post-secondary campuses before the end of February to ensure safe return, she said.

“Our post-secondary institutions truly deserve the same resources and protections as other places of learning in Alberta. And we have not seen that from the government.”

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Daily cases are declining in Calgary and Edmonton, though active cases continue to rise across the province.

Alberta reported 6,163 new cases Friday, with a positivity rate of about 37 percent, while the number of active cases rose to 64,129.

Due to limited public lab testing, the county has estimated that the daily number of cases is likely 10 times higher than the reported number.

There are 822 people in hospital, 36 more than Thursday. There are 81 people in intensive care, two more than Thursday. Five more people have died.

The daily number of COVID-19 cases has fallen slightly, according to wastewater data collected by the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.
The daily number of COVID-19 cases has fallen slightly, according to wastewater data collected by the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta. Photo by Screenshot

Researcher links restrictions to wave peak

During Thursday’s press conference, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said it is too early to determine what the overall trend will be in Alberta. Positivity and transmission rates are still extremely high, she said.

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“Omicron is so transmissible that the rapidly increasing number of cases could reach a point where more people than any previous wave would need to be hospitalized for care,” Hinshaw said.

Prime Minister Jason Kenney said he is hopeful the county could see cases drop soon, but the sheer number of cases is “just huge”.

“They are much larger than what our tests can identify, and there will be many cases if and when we reach that peak,” Kenney said.

Alberta Health did not respond to Postmedia’s requests for updated COVID-19 modeling.

Gosia Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist at the University of Calgary, has done independent modeling of Alberta’s earlier COVID-19 waves. She found that previous waves of infections began to mount as more public health restrictions were put in place.

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For example, when the province switched back to online learning during the second wave of schools, the infections peaked before falling sharply. The same trend occurred during the third wave, she said.

“Just after restrictions were put in place, the wave collapsed. But it’s because of those limitations’, explains Gasperowicz.

By sticking to the status quo, positive cases could increase exponentially until the virus runs out of people to infect, she said — an approach the province has not taken before. But it’s not one that will protect against future waves of infection, she said.

“If I get infected now, I may have some temporary immunity to infection, but it will wear off over time. If there is then another variant with a higher immune evasion, I can become infected again.”

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Gasperowicz said Albertans deserve to see predictive transmission models, including models that include the potential impact of further public health restrictions.

“The wave is not inevitable. We have control over where the peak can be.”

Modeling across Canada

The federal government’s national forecast released Friday indicates the wave will rise soon, but health experts won’t know for sure for a week or so. Omicron may have a lower risk of hospitalization, but the sheer number of cases could still increase hospitalization rates.

“It’s very possible we’ll see that spike in the next few days, at least in the number of cases,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, during a briefing.

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Quebec had already announced the latest wave is peaking, and on Friday British Columbia’s modeling suggested the province likely peaked over the weekend, though hospitalizations are expected to peak next week.

In Ontario, the expert pandemic advisory group said the latest indications suggest that the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 could peak in the coming weeks as test positivity in the province begins to wane.

— With files from The Canadian Press

bgervais@postmedia.com

Twitter: @BrittGervaisAB

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