EDMONTON — Alberta does not yet have any reported cases of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, but the province's chief medical officer of health says it's realistically only a matter of time.
"It is very likely that Omicron will eventually reach our province," Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters Monday.
"Our goal now is to delay the spread of Omicron until we learn more about it."
As a result, Hinshaw said Alberta is ramping up tracing and testing of COVID-19 cases identified in all returning international travellers.
The Canadian government has already banned travellers from a number of southern African countries where the variant originated.
Premier Jason Kenney said 156 travellers from these banned nations have returned to Alberta in the last two weeks. They were contacted over the weekend, advised of testing and isolation rules and offered testing kits, he said.
"To be clear, no one has tested positive here (for Omicron), but we are working with these individuals to reduce any chance of spread," said Kenney.
The World Health Organization declared Omicron a variant of concern late last week, and Quebec and Ontario have since confirmed several cases.
"The situation with the Omicron variant is evolving quickly," said Kenney. "Initial evidence suggests this variant has an increased number of mutations and increased transmissibility.
"Over the weekend, cases of this variant have been detected in more than 14 countries including Canada."
Alberta is exiting the fourth wave of COVID-19 and already has masking rules and a modified vaccine passport in place.
All staff of Alberta Health Services have been directed to be fully vaccinated.
Dr. Verna Yiu, the head of Alberta Health Services, announced that 96 per cent of staff — including more than 99 per cent of physicians — are fully vaccinated.
However, she said 3,000 staff members have not shown proof of vaccination or have declined to be vaccinated.
Yiu said the vaccination deadline will be extended to Dec. 13.
Starting that day, Yiu said about 260 employees in critical, staffing-challenged areas who have not shown proof of vaccination will have to undergo frequent testing at their own cost. Those who don't get the tests will be placed on unpaid leave, she said.
The rest of the 3,000 resisters also have until Dec. 13 to get vaccinated or be sent home on unpaid leave.
"We have done all that we can do to encourage (vaccine-resisters)," said Yiu.
"AHS stands by its immunization policy, which was implemented to protect patients and health-care workers."
Alberta currently has fewer than 5,000 active cases of COVID-19. There are 432 people in hospital with the illness, including 77 in intensive care.
Nearly 84 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and older are fully immunized.
The province also began giving shots last week to those aged five to 11.
Kenney said more than 18,400 doses have been delivered to those youngsters and more than 57,000 appointments have been booked over the next four weeks.
"The uptake has been strong," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press